Jeff Gordon hopes to ride momentum into Watkins Glen

 

Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 5, 2012 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The twist of fate that inserted Jeff Gordon’s name back into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff race was much like a parting of the seas. But even with one win in hand after a bizarre finish at Pocono Raceway, it’s far from smooth sailing from here for the four-time champion.

Gordon shot from fifth to first when his rivals collided in front of him in what turned out to be the final restart before a rainstorm prematurely halted last Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400. The result handed Gordon his first victory of the year and a provisional grasp on a wild-card berth with five races left before NASCAR’s postseason.

The next of those races may be a wild-card unto itself. Gordon and the rest of the Sprint Cup field will shift to road racing at Watkins Glen International for Sunday’s Finger Lakes 335 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The 2.45-mile layout was once a playground for Gordon, who romped to four wins in five years from 1997-2001. There would be no better time for Gordon to rekindle his Watkins Glen magic than now, as another win would do wonders for his Chase hopes.

“I mean, that would be huge,” said Gordon, who locked up his 86th career win last weekend. “To follow up what just happened in Pocono, to know what’s happening with the wild card, the battle for the Chase, I think that we know while we’ve made some huge gains over the last several weeks, that we’re certainly in no position to take a breath or be comfortable with one win being, what, 13th in points.

“Not only do we understand — and that’s why there is added pressure — how important it is to continue to keep up a high level of performance. I don’t know if we need the second win as badly as we needed the first one, but it’s not far off.”

The performance level of late has helped to offset dreadful early season luck for the No. 24 team. Gordon was mired in 24th in points heading into Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 in May, but six top-10 finishes in the last seven races — including last Sunday’s win — have helped him jump 11 spots in the Sprint Cup standings.

Although the level of competition on road courses among the stock-car crowd has tightened immensely in recent years, two road pros in particular figure to be among Gordon’s toughest challengers — Tony Stewart, who has five wins in the last 10 races at the Glen, and Marcos Ambrose, the race’s defending champ.

Stewart is a virtual lock to qualify for the Chase either via a top-10 ranking in points (he’s currently sixth) or one of the two wild-card berths for top winners in positions 11-20 (his three wins are tied with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for most in the series). Ambrose, however, is on exceedingly shaky Chase ground, winless and 18th in points, as he heads to the site of his only Cup win. His position is not unlike Gordon’s scenario from a week ago — in desperate need of a victory to merit Chase consideration.

“I have a lot of good memories from our win there last year, and I’m hopeful we can go out and win No. 2 this weekend,” Ambrose said. “. . . My team has worked extremely hard the last few weeks and it would be a good shot of momentum for the second half of the season if we could pull off a win this weekend.”

FELLOWS ON FAST TRACK IN NATIONWIDE

Ron Fellows circles road course races on the NASCAR calendar like holidays, primarily because they’ve been his greatest source of success.

The winding road at Watkins Glen International stands out in particular for the Windsor, Ontario native. Of his six combined wins in NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series competition, all but one have come at the Glen.

Fellows, whose part-time NASCAR slate has been exclusively on road courses since 1999, will get another chance to taste stock-car victory in Saturday’s Zippo 200 at The Glen (2:15 p.m. ET, ABC).

Fellows hasn’t won in NASCAR since 2008, when he captured the first national series race to be contested on rain tires in Montreal, and hasn’t prevailed at the Glen since 2001. He’ll be bringing the same JR Motorsports entry that he drove to a third-place finish at Road America in June.

“I feel very good about it. We had a strong car at Road America. We played catch-up the day following a flat tire, then we had an issue in the pits just trying to fix some radios,” Fellows said. “But, you know, Watkins Glen, we’ve had great success at the Glen. It’s a track that suits my driving style. Yeah, it’s like a second home. Really enjoy racing there.”

Fellows is one of several road-racing part-timers on the 48-driver Watkins Glen entry list who will provide subplot to the Nationwide Series’ points chase, which remains a four-car breakaway.

Elliott Sadler, who locked down his fourth win of the season last weekend in Iowa, continues to set the pace, with Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon 18 points back in second place. Defending series champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 21 points off the top in third with Sam Hornish Jr., last week’s winner of the final Dash 4 Cash $100,000 bonus, 34 points behind Sadler in fourth.
NASCAR this weekend:

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES

The Race: Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen
The Place: Watkins Glen International
The Date: Sunday, Aug. 12
The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)
TV: ESPN, Noon (ET)
Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 220.5 miles (90 laps)

NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES

The Race: Zippo 200 at The Glen
The Place: Watkins Glen International
The Date: Saturday, Aug. 11
The Time: 2:15 p.m. (ET)
TV: ABC, 2 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 200.9 miles (82 laps)

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