Friday, August 5, 2016

Under Pressure: Five Questions for Watkins Glen

Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
There are two types of people – those who collapse under pressure, and those who succeed when their back is against the wall. In racing, it’s easy to see which type collects more trophies.

Pressure is a common theme in NASCAR lately, with Chase bubbles coming down to the wire and chances to be taken. The playoffs are coming, and pressure lurks in the back of every driver's subconscious. It affects every decision, too, even if he or she doesn't realize it.

Right now, it’s all about what type of person a driver is – and reactions can make or break the season.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Xfinity Series head to Watkins Glen International, where anything can lurk around the twists and turns. Who will handle it the best on the NXS side? Which Cup champion will finish best? These are some of the questions I have for Watkins Glen, and there are three more ahead. Let’s get to it.

Which regular can thrive at the start of a difficult stretch? This is the beginning of the hardest part of the Xfinity schedule. After Watkins Glen, NXS heads to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Bristol Motor Speedway, Road America and Darlington Raceway. Those are tough tracks to manage while trying to lock into the Chase. Who will handle the first track the best? Two names stick out in my mind, and one of them might surprise you. The first is Daniel Suarez due to his stellar results this season. As I’ve previously written, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones can’t put a whole race together. Suarez has more cohesion with his team, and that goes a long way. The second driver that stands out to me is Brendan Gaughan. He is very seasoned, and road courses have been kind to him in recent years. If he can get a win under his belt, it’s safe to say he can be a serious contender for the title. Anyone can capitalize at an unpredictable road course, but Suarez and Gaughan jump to the forefront of my mind. Call it a gut feeling.

Which up-and-comer will join SHR’s Xfinity team in 2017? Did you hear the news? A few weeks ago, Stewart-Haas Racing announced they will field a car in the NASCAR Xfinity Series next year. It will be a huge year for the organization, who will cut ties with Hendrick Motorsports and switch to Ford in 2017. There has been much speculation on who will fill that seat. Here are my thoughts: the most obvious choice is Cole Custer, who has Haas Automation on his JR Motorsports ride in CWTS. He’s also shown strength in the Xfinity No. 88 during his handful of starts. He would do well in their car. The driver announcement is coming – and it has Custer’s name all over it.  

Who will finish better in their monumental start, Gordon or Kenseth? In case you want to feel old, here’s the fact for you: Jeff Gordon will make his 800th start this weekend, and Watkins Glen will make Matt Kenseth’s 600th Sprint Cup race. Where did the time go? Anyway, I want to know which seasoned driver will finish the best. When you pit champion vs. champion at Watkins Glen, Gordon’s stats give him the upper-hand; four victories, six top fives, and nine top 10s highlight his 23 starts at the road course. In his 16 starts, Kenseth has a lone top five at WG, with six top 10s. However, stats are the past. We want to focus on the driver’s ability at this moment – and that dampens Gordon’s chances. When HMS announced Gordon would fill-in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Indianapolis, I was confident he would smoke the field. Obviously, I was overzealous with that prediction. The fact of the matter is the No. 88 team isn’t running on full cylinders; Earnhardt Jr. struggled with team cohesion earlier this season, and having their main driver out probably isn’t helping. This isn’t Gordon’s fault – and he can only play the cards he’s been dealt. Because of this and the fact Joe Gibbs Racing is absolutely stellar right now, Kenseth has the advantage despite his lackluster stats at the road course.

Are we sleeping on Bayne? The Chase is quickly approaching, and the 16-car field is all but set. The usual suspects are included and ready to go. Around the cutoff line, there are a few surprises. One of the unique names attempting to make the championship field is Trevor Bayne, who is currently 17th in points. I have to be honest – the 2011 Daytona 500 winner hasn’t done much in his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. However, this season has been a complete 180 from previous years. He has earned two top fives and four top 10s in 2016, and those stats are supported by consistent finishes in and around the top 20. If he keeps it up and has a bit of luck along the way, he can make the Chase for the first time in his career. There’s a lot of pressure involved, as you can imagine. It is completely possible, especially with the other bubble drivers struggling. The other drivers – as well as everyone else – need to keep an eye on him. He is competing in both races this weekend, sharpening his skills for Sunday and getting as much “extra practice” as he can. He won’t let this opportunity slip through his fingers.

Can Buescher crack the top 30? Nobody saw Chris Buescher’s victory coming, which is what made it so fulfilling. Fog rolled into Pocono Raceway and created the upset. Now the focus turns to Buescher and his Front Row Motorsports team to make the top 30 in points. He’s currently 31st in the standings, six points out. This is an obstacle that can be overcome easily; six points is miniscule in the grand scheme of things. However, can he lock down a Chase slot this weekend at The Glen? That’s a bit iffy; road courses are so unpredictable, making it easy for Buescher to make mistakes that others can capitalize on. Talk about pressure. After that is the demolition derby that is Bristol Motor Speedway, which is even more up in the air. I want to see him in the Chase as much as the next person – who doesn’t love a good underdog story? However, it’s going to take a lot of work and solid runs to make that idea a reality. It is completely possible, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out.