WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — It’s easy to identify all the winners and losers from Sunday’s Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen International — or is it?
Here’s my take on a wild race at the Glen:
Winner — Marcos Ambrose, of course. Not that Ambrose needed to remind anyone of his road course credentials, but Ambrose is all but unbeatable at the Glen, having won there three times in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and twice straight in Sprint Cup. The victory gives Ambrose a glimmer of hope where the Chase is concerned, if he can do something he’s never done before — win on an oval. Next on the schedule is Michigan, where Ambrose won the pole in June. “There’s no reason why we can’t go there and surprise them again,” Ambrose said.
Loser — Kyle Busch. A second victory would have made Busch’s path into the Chase for the Sprint Cup a lot less thorny, and Busch looked like a winner when he took the white flag with an eight car-length lead over Brad Keselowski. But Busch was derailed by oil in the racing groove in Turn 1 and lost the lead when Keselowski also slid in the oil and knocked him for a loop in Turn 2. Busch nevertheless finished seventh, but he still hasn’t found his second win.
Winner — Brad Keselowski. Losing the duel with Ambrose cost Kez what would have been a series-leading fourth victory, but the driver of the No. 2 Dodge nevertheless gained two spots to a solid fifth in the Cup standings. Keselowski, who also finished second in Saturday’s Nationwide race, also scored bonus points for his sportsmanship after both events. Not wanting to make enemies before the Chase, Keselowski says he’s banking “nice-guy points” for the final 10 races.
Loser — Denny Hamlin. Feeling the heat from flames through the firewall after his engine exploded on Sunday, Hamlin also is feeling the heat of the Chase bubble, where he landed after his 34th-place finish. True, Hamlin has an insurance policy with his two victories earlier this season, but he’s now in a vulnerable position. Now 10th in points and just 40 points ahead of Kasey Kahne, Hamlin could lose six bonus points to start the Chase (three for each win) if he has more bad luck and falls out of the top 10.
Winner — Jeff Gordon. Winner? Yes, though Gordon spun on oil in the final corner, finished 21st and lost control of the provisional Chase wild card spot he occupied after winning at Pocono, he dodged a bullet on Sunday. A Kyle Busch victory would have forced Gordon to win one of the next four races to secure a spot in the Chase. As it stands now, Gordon can reclaim a provisional wild-card spot by winning a race or by outscoring Ryan Newman by 11 points and Busch by five over the next four races, providing neither of those drivers (or Ambrose, Carl Edwards or Joey Logano) posts a win.
Loser — Dale Earnhardt Jr. Poised for a top-10 finish, Earnhardt overdrove the inner loop and spun at the entrance to Turn 5 with six laps left. In his own words Earnhardt “drove like a dummy” and cost himself the series lead, dropping from first to fourth in the standings. But Earnhardt Nation can take heart. The damage is merely cosmetic. When the Chase field is re-racked after Richmond four races from now, the number of victories is paramount, and who’s in first today matters not at all.
Winner — The large, enthusiastic crowd at Watkins Glen, which saw one of the most exciting finishes of the season. Collectively, Sprint Cup drivers have become much more proficient at road courses over the past decade. “Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch are two of the best road racers I’ve ever been around,” said Ambrose, who is without peer. The quality of competition at road courses, which was lacking in the 1990s but is in full flower now, would argue for the inclusion of another road course on the Cup schedule, ideally in the Chase. Sonoma is lovely in September. So is Montreal, which doesn’t have to compete against the NFL. NASCAR chairman and CEO said in July that a road course in the Chase wasn’t a priority. In light of Sunday’s action, it’s time to re-evaluate that position.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author