NASCAR race ends with action
WATKINS GLEN—The word of the day at Watkins Glen International on Sunday was drama—not only to describe the action on the racetrack, but its implications for the championship picture. As the first of five races counting down to the start of the Chase for the Championship—NASCAR’s version of a playoff season—the stakes heading into the race were high.
The drama actually began nearly a week before the race. Monday, Aug. 5, driver Tony Stewart—a perennial favorite for both road-course wins and cup titles—broke both bones in his right lower leg racing on a half-mile dirt track in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
Stewart, the winningest active cup driver at WGI with five victories, had two surgeries on his leg during the week and is expected to undergo a lengthy period of recuperation.
The Cheez-It 355 at The Glen got underway under sunny skies Sunday afternoon with a full field of 43 cars, including Max Papis substituting for Stewart.
Marcos Ambrose, winner of the last two cup races here, led the field to green, having secured the pole with a record-setting 128.241 mph lap in qualifying Saturday. Given his past achievements at The Glen and his pole-winning run, Ambrose was considered one of the favorites for the win.
Another favorite in Sunday’s field, at least in terms of prior accomplishments, was Jeff Gordon, with a combined nine career road-course wins, including four at Watkins Glen. In a dramatic turn of events, Gordon, who started 28th on the grid, sustained a hard crash just 13 laps into the race as he attempted to work his way through traffic. He finished the race multiple laps down in 38th place.
“It’s unfortunate. I had a big run on the No. 11 and I got up on him and the nose just completely took off and put me in the wall,” a dejected Gordon said after being released from the infield care center.
Ambrose, meanwhile, was dominant throughout the early going, leading the first 28 laps and 51 of 90 on the day. But an ill-timed caution—at least for the No. 9 team—shuffled him back in the pack. The lap 60 caution, ironically brought out when Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola spun, occurred as green flag pit stops were cycling through.
Since he had not yet pitted, Ambrose was forced to pit under caution, while Kyle Busch—the eventually race winner—had already undergone service. As a result, when the race went green on lap 64, Busch restarted in first with Ambrose in 12th.
The race saw a total of eight cautions, including the longest—a 22-minute red flag stoppage—after a multi-car crash on lap 40 involving Travis Kvapil, Ron Fellows, Tomy Drissi, Landon Cassill and Victor Gonzalez Jr.
Ambrose was still in the lead after the red flag, but he was never able to recover from the caution involving Almirola. Mired in traffic and without the clean air he had enjoyed as race leader, he was involved in a wreck on lap 85, just as he was telling his team something was wrong with the car.
“I’m just really disappointed for my Stanley team,” said Ambrose, who finished the race 31st. “Something was wrong with the car there and I just couldn’t get going. I could feel on the roll-around lap that something had broken, but I just feel bad for the guys who got caught up in all that mess ... We had a very fast car, but it just wasn’t our day.”
When the race went green again with just two laps to go, it was Kyle Busch in the lead, with Brad Keselowski—the winner of Saturday’s Nationwide Series race—running second and Martin Truex Jr., third.
Busch got a great restart and was briefly challenged by Keselowski, who caught up to the back bumper of the 18 car, but was unable to pull off a pass.
“Kyle did a great job with his restarts,” Keselowski said. “I almost had him, but I was gonna have to wreck him to do it. I didn’t need more drama.”
Following Busch across the finish line was Keselowski, followed by Truex Jr., Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and A.J. Allmendinger rounded out the top 10.
Aside from Ambrose, Busch was the only double-digit lap leader, running a total of 29 laps up front. Kevin Harvick led eight laps, while Montoya and Jamie McMurray each led one.
“We ran really hard there those last couple laps,” Busch said in his post-race press conference. “I just couldn’t get away from (Keselowski). My car wouldn’t turn through the corners as well as I needed to. I just couldn’t get the front tires to bite, and so he could catch me through the corners, but the braking zones and exiting the corners, I felt like I was really strong on and could get away from him.”
The win proved to be vindication for Busch, who was a close contender for the win at WGI the past two years, though he admitted the win did not completely make up for those bitter losses.
“I’ll never get the trophies at my house and I won’t have the win that it took to get into the Chase for last year. Nothing ever makes up for lost things, things taken from you, however you want to put it. But this is certainly a sweet victory.”
As anticipated, the race had a drastic effect on the Chase picture. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne (who finished 34th) both fell four spots in the standings, and, more importantly, dropped out of the top 10. Kahne, now 12th in points, currently holds a wildcard spot, having won two races during the regular season. But Gordon, 13th in points, is in danger of missing the Chase, as he has been winless this year. Keselowski and Truex Jr., meanwhile, climbed four spots in the standings and are both in the top 10 heading to Michigan this weekend.