Learn more about the Chase Countdown Challenges for some Sprint Cup drivers via the link above. For a couple other drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon – their specific Chase Countdown Challenge at Watkins Glen is more in-depth in this Cheez-It™ 355 at The Glen preview, along with some other noteworthy topics of interest.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. To Top Of The Chase Grid
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win on Sunday at Pocono Raceway catapulted him to the top of the Chase Grid Outlook, and if the Chase for the Sprint Cup began today, he’d start as the number one seed; which would be a first for the 11-time Most Popular Driver.
Earnhardt has only led the standings during the Chase once in his Sprint Cup Series career; following his third-place finish in the opening Chase race at New Hampshire in 2004. Unfortunately for Dale Jr. the glory only lasted that one week, he dropped to third in the points the very next weekend after finishing ninth at Dover. Earnhardt would again capture the points lead two weeks later after a win in Talladega, but it was short-lived thanks to a mid-week points penalty.
Earnhardt’s three wins put him in a tie with Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson for most this season, and would give him nine bonus points to start the Chase. In addition to his three wins, Earnhardt has ten top-fives, 15 top-tens and an impressive average finish of 9.8 this season.
Earnhardt has made the Chase six times in his career – 2004, ’06, ’08, ’11, ’12 and ’13 – with a best championship finish of fifth – three times: 2004, ’06 and ’13 – during the Chase. His best average finish during the Chase was 12.6 in 2004.
But this season has all the makings of a storybook ending. It’s the first season since 2004 that he has won multiple times; including his first sweep of a race track in a single season since 2002 at Talladega. His season-to-date driver rating is the third highest in his career this late in the season at 99.9 – the highest season-to-date Driver Rating this late in the season was 2008 at 102.5. And to put a sense of urgency on the season, Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, has announced this will be his last season with the team before joining NBC’s broadcast booth.
Five races remain in the regular season and this week the series is at Watkins Glen International for its second of two road course events on the schedule. Of the five remaining tracks, Watkins Glen will be Earnhardt’s biggest challenge. He has made 14 starts at the Glen posting only two top-fives and an average finish 23.2 – his worst on the active schedule.
If Dale Jr. can make it past Watkins Glen unscathed in the points, statistically he could be in the clear sailing to the Chase with a first-place seed; he has won at the remaining four tracks of the regular season – Michigan (2), Bristol (1), Atlanta (1) and Richmond (3).
At first glance, a betting man might believe Jeff Gordon would be the popular pick to win this Sunday at Watkins Glen.
The current points leader holds the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series road course record with nine victories, including four at Watkins Glen. Gordon has already clinched a spot in the Chase and has everything to gain and nothing to lose by gunning for the checkered flag.
Or, has Gordon lost some of his road course mojo? He has not won on a road course since 2006 at Sonoma and his last Watkins Glen victory came in 2001.
Maybe a little of both. The No. 24 has taken second in his last two starts at the Sonoma, but Watkins Glen hasn’t been very friendly to him. Gordon has posted just two top-ten finishes at Watkins Glen since his last win at the track.
Perhaps past years’ performance is not the best indicator for Gordon’s chances on Sunday. He arguably has more momentum than any driver on the circuit following his victory at Indy and he led a race-high 63 laps in his sixth-place finish at Pocono last Sunday. Gordon also boasts eight top-ten finishes in his last 11 races.
One more advantage Gordon will have on his side: Experience. Sunday will mark Gordon’s 22nd start at Watkins Glen, tying him with Terry Labonte, Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip for the most starts at the track.
More Sprint Cup Series Topics Worthy of Noting
Nelson Piquet Jr., son of former Formula 1 champ Nelson Piquet, will be making his Sprint Cup Series début this weekend at Watkins Glen driving the No. 77 Ford for car owner Randy Humphrey. Piquet has three national series wins in his career, including one at a road course – 2012, in a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Road America.
For the legions of ‘Said Heads,’ their favorite driver is returning to the series this weekend. Boris Said will be behind the wheel of the No. 32 Ford for car owner Frank Stoddard Jr.
Testing Update: The No. 87 Identity Ventures Racing team will test at Bristol Motor Speedway next Monday and Tuesday, with driver Brett Moffitt.
Brian Vickers will make his 450th national series start this weekend at Watkins Glen. Vickers could also post his 75th Sprint Cup Series top-ten finish.
Casey Mears could post his 50th Sprint Cup Series top-ten finish this weekend.
Home Free Vocal Band, a country a cappella group and season 4 winner of NBC’s The Sing-Off will sing the National Anthem at Watkins Glen International during the Cheez-It™ 355 at The Glen.