WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Kasey Kahne sits seventh in the Sprint Cup standings, and his first road course win is still fresh on his mind.
That should make him confident as the series shifts this week to the road course at Watkins Glen. But he’s only 79 points inside the top 12 and just 11 points ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya, so Kahne remains wary with five races remaining before the cutoff for the Chase for the championship.
“You know, I don’t feel super confident, but I definitely feel good where we’re sitting right now,” Kahne said. “I feel like if we keep it up, we’re going to be in good shape. But things can happen so easily by your own error or just by racing situations. It’s just the way racing goes.”
No matter what’s at stake, racing over the fast 11-turn, 2.45-mile Watkins Glen road course – one of only two on the Cup schedule – can bring out the worst in anybody, and often has. Toss in a handful of non-regular drivers (road-course specialists aiming for that breakthrough victory) and a few regular drivers who aren’t having the season they had hoped for, and Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips At The Glen becomes something of a wild card.
“There’s opportunities for guys to make mistakes in those road races,” said Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash. “You don’t wish bad luck on anybody, but the other guys we’re chasing for spots are good there, too. Kasey won at Sonoma (in June), and Juan Pablo runs good. Let’s face it, those are the two guys I’m racing for a spot, plus my teammate, Matt Kenseth, who’s right behind us.”
Only the top 12 drivers in the standings are eligible to compete for the Sprint Cup title over the final 10 races of the season, and Biffle is one who can’t afford to make a big blunder. He finished 15th at Pocono on Monday, dropping a position in the standings to 12th – just one point behind Roush Fenway Racing teammate Kenseth and 101 points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing star Kyle Busch.
Busch left Watkins Glen International a year ago brimming with confidence after notching his eighth win of the Cup season. He needs a repeat performance this week to rekindle hopes of making the 10-race Chase.
“This is a track where I feel like we can make up some ground,” Busch said Thursday on a conference call with reporters. “If we can get a good car like we had last year and maybe qualify up somewhat near the front, we can take a little bit of pit strategy and get up there a little bit further. We’ve got to fight hard.”
Despite a disappointing 16th at Pocono, his fourth straight finish outside the top 10, Busch remains upbeat for good reason. He has three top-10 finishes in four starts at The Glen.
“We had a great race last year, so there’s no reason we can’t have another one this year,” Busch said. “The biggest thing that we fight is the points deal. We can’t make a mistake going into a braking zone or getting a rear wheel hop into Turn 1 and spinning out, or something like that, late in the race and costing us a good finish.”
Good finishes at Watkins Glen can be hard to come by, even for the best. Jeff Gordon is tied with Tony Stewart for most victories with four, but since his last victory at The Glen in 2001, Gordon has just one top 10 and four finishes of 20th or worse.
Gordon won the pole in 2003 with a record speed of 124.580 mph and finished 33rd, the victim of a spinout on the first turn of the race, compliments of a rookie named Biffle. Two years ago, Gordon held the lead with two laps remaining and spun out again on the first turn, handing the victory to a hard-charging Stewart.
Stewart, the points leader in his first year as an owner-driver, has become the driver to beat at Watkins Glen and is poised to clinch his spot on the Chase. He has five consecutive top-two finishes, winning in 2004, 2005 and 2007 and finishing second in 2006 and 2008.
Still, though Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Robby Gordon combined to win eight of nine races at The Glen from 1997-2005, other drivers have since begun to narrow the gap.
Harvick used a daring late-race pass to beat Stewart here three years ago. Busch won from the pole in 2008 to complete a rare road course sweep and become the first driver in NASCAR history to win three road races in a single season (he also won at Sonoma and in the Nationwide Series race in Mexico). Kahne and Montoya have victories at Sonoma.
Kahne’s win at Sonoma brought team co-owner Richard Petty to Victory Lane for the first time in over a decade.
If Kahne is uneasy, it’s in part because at Watkins Glen tempers tend to flare when the 90-lap race nears the finish. Two years ago, Montoya and Harvick got together with less than 20 laps remaining. Both were running in the top 10 and ended up in a shoving match after their cars got banged up. Harvick finished 36th, Montoya 39th.
This will be the first time the Cup’s new double-file restart will be used at Watkins Glen.
The fans are certain to enjoy it. Biffle won’t.
“For the first five cars it works great for, it’s good competition,” Biffle said. “But if you’re driving down the freeway at 55 and you take the off-ramp and it’s a 10-degree corner and you’re in a line of cars, these guys start slowing down for that corner. So when you get back (in the field), these guys are stopped and have nowhere to go way prior to that corner, so we’re driving through the grass, over the curbs, we’re five wide, people are slamming into each other because we’ve got nowhere to go.”
Except up or down in the standings.