The Glen's unique challenge awaits drivers Sunday
Jeff Gordon's hardly a lock for the Chase for the Nextel Cup at this point, and there's no guarantee a trip to Watkins Glen will get him a step closer to that goal.
For a time, hitting the Glen seemed to guarantee Gordon a spot in the top five. He has been there for 13 Cup races and has won four of them and finished in the top five on six occasions.
Gordon hasn't won on the 2.45-mile facility since 2001, though, having not been a factor in 2002, running out of gas on the last lap in 2003, lost a transmission the next year, and been plagued with a flat tire and a penalty for pitting too soon a year ago.
Things almost took a true turn for the worse last week when sway bar problems left him three laps down at Indianapolis. Gordon rallied back to finish 16th, but it wasn't the type of points day he was hoping for. As it is, he's ninth in points with a 50-point margin over the 11th spot.
And recent results there aside; he's ready for the Glen. He did win at the Infineon Raceway road course in Sonoma, Calif., two months ago, so he's hoping to pick up where he left off in California.
"We're pretty excited about this weekend's race," Gordon said. "We've stepped up our road course program this year, and we're looking to be strong again.
"You can't run the exact same setup as you do at Sonoma, but I think that we'll be able to learn a lot from that race which should improve our program here."
For Gordon to return to past form at Watkins Glen, he'll have to get past Tony Stewart, winner of the last two races at the track. Stewart has won three times at the Glen and twice at Sonoma, making him the current king of the road.
Although Gordon is the leader in road course wins, Stewart has six top-two finishes in 15 events and has been in the top 10 in nine of those starts.
"I don't think we've put any more emphasis on the road courses than we have any other race, but I've got a crew chief [Greg Zipadelli] who is very versatile and we have good people that work really hard to make the best road course cars we can," Stewart said. "It's just the classic case of Zippy and I working so well together that we can always get where we need to be.
"He gets the car driving really good for me, and he can make that car do what I want it to do. Then when I'm on the track, I'm probably one of the most comfortable drivers on the racetrack. And at that point, I can go out and do the job. I think a lot of it is due to Zippy because he puts as much emphasis on the road course races as he does at Indy or anywhere else. Even though there are only two road courses on the schedule, it shows how dedicated Zippy is as a crew chief to every discipline we race."
Stewart said he approaches the weekend the same as any other, simply going out looking to win from the outset. A fading engine ruined a strong run at Sonoma for Stewart, but he's ready for Watkins Glen.
The thing is, what he did at Sonoma doesn't really translate to Watkins Glen.
"At Watkins Glen, you don't have to finesse the throttle near as much as you do at Sonoma. When you get the car turned, you can get in the gas and then stay in the gas," Stewart said. "Watkins Glen is much faster than Sonoma. I think there are the same amounts of passing opportunities, but because of the speeds that you're able to run at the Glen, brakes become a much bigger factor than I think they are at Sonoma.
"It's pretty much a horsepower track. It's horsepower and aerodynamics just like it is anywhere else we go. It just happens to be in the form of a road course. Sonoma has a lot less grip in the racetrack. You have to really be careful with the throttle there, and that puts more of the race in the driver's hands."
Stewart said Sonoma might be more technical because a driver's working every instant of every lap, either shifting, accelerating, braking or turning. The frontstretch and backstretch at Watkins Glen give a driver time to catch a break.
That means things are more in the hands of the crew and the engine builder, Stewart said. But the thing is, Stewart's success at both tracks shows that the driver plays a bigger role than this one modestly admits.
After a tough week at Indianapolis that ended with an early crash, Boris Said will be a road course ace looking to prove himself this week. And he thinks he's at the perfect track to do just that.
"Infineon is a much more technical track, much more throttle control and managing the rear tires," Said said. "At Watkins Glen, you can be a lot more aggressive, and the brakes pay big dividends there -- how good you are on the brakes -- so it plays into my style a little bit more. I've had better finishes there over the years. Last year, coming off a third-place finish, I just hope I can build on that this year with my own team."
One driver just looking for a solid run will be Greg Biffle, who needs to fight his way back into the top 10. The thing is, every lap will be an adventure, as he knows how even the slightest miscue can take a huge toll on a driver's chances.
"The thing about road racing for me, and it appears like it's the same for other drivers, [is] if you screw up in one corner, three corners later, your rhythm is still off," Biffle said. "It's like doing that deal where two people are running and have their legs tied together, the problems keep rippling forward."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.