Stewart's team makes it look easy
About an hour of practice on Friday and, for some lucky few, one extra lap during qualifying on Saturday is all the time NASCAR's Nextel Cup racers will get this weekend prior to adusting their oval-driving styles to the road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Rain canceled qualifying midway through the endeavor, setting up an interesting predicament for drivers trying to retain their spots among the top 10 in the points standings, as well as those drivers within striking distance and hoping to sneak into the mix.
These teams have limited information on how their setups will work out on the road course, and they have even less knowledge on how other drivers are going to stack up. Only two things are for sure: (1) They're happy to be among the top 15 so that they're guaranteed good pit stall selections and a decent starting spot now that the lineup is set by points; and (2) Once again, it's Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Chevy that are the talk of the garage.
|“||It's obvious that the 20 team has something figured out that nobody else does ”|
|— Greg Biffle|
"If the 20 car doesn't break, [Stewart] will annihilate the field," driver Jamie McMurray said. "He's in a league of his own this week."
Stewart turned a blisteringly fast lap during qualifying, having logged only a couple miles prior to qualifying.
"It's obvious that the 20 team has something figured out that nobody else does," driver Greg Biffle said. "It's unfortunate that we can't figure out what they're doing. We're working really hard at it. They're doing something to get their car down on the racetrack. It's obvious, you can see it on TV. We've been able to watch it for the last few weeks."
But while Biffle, ranked third in the standings, is curious about what Stewart and Co. have up their sleeves, there's a group of guys just a bit further back in the standings that would do just about anything to hit a hot streak similar to Stewart's, which is now four victories in six races. For some of these teams, the canceling of qualifying -- where they appeared slow or anticipated being slow -- was a boost. For others, it was a bit of misfortune.
For instance, Jeff Gordon is statistically the most dominant full-time driver on the Cup circuit. Limited practice and track time might have played right into his hands -- allowing the 14th-place driver and winner of the pole at the last road course NASCAR visited to snatch a top-10 starting spot. But Gordon said up front or middle of the pack, wherever he starts, his focus is on finishing with the leaders.
"Watkins Glen has been a good track for us in the past, but that doesn't guarantee us a good finish," Gordon said. "We won the pole at Sonoma and led a lot of laps before transmission problems led to a [33rd-place] result. I'm not going to count on anything until we get some top-fives and some top-10s on a consistent basis. It doesn't matter what the past statistics show, and we recognize that."
At least Gordon has good finishes in his corner at road courses to offer a basis for confidence coming into the weekend. Carl Edwards is sitting in the critical 10th-place position in the points standings with just five races remaining before the top 10 are frozen and sent into a championship playoff.
That's better than sitting outside of the top 10, but it also leaves you as the target of several teams. That's the pressure the young Roush Racing driver carries into Watkins Glen, where his most glowing compliment to himself is that he's improving on road courses.
"We just keep getting better," he said. "This has been a tough racetrack for me. We came and tested and we weren't very fast and we picked up a second from practice, so I'm really happy."
Edwards was one of the few who did get to run a qualifying lap at the Glen on Saturday, but his lap wasn't much to see.
"It might be 30th-place qualifying position, but it's my personal best yet, so I'm pretty excited," the ever-optimistic Edwards said. "I think by the end of race, I'll be tons faster than I am right now, still, so just looking forward to a good, long race."
Obviously, the rain-out was a big boost to Edwards's No. 99 team, which won't start back in 30th -- but rather in 10th. Elliott Sadler and Co., who have fallen from as high as third place in the standings about a month ago to 12th, won't be as fortunate with the rain-out lineup procedures.
Under the lineup procedures, he should start 12th, and while he officially will, Sadler knew before qualifying that his team would have to drop to the back of the field after taking the green flag. Knowing this, the team approached qualifying as another way to practice for the race -- just a way to log some time on the track.
"The car's got a lot more than that in it and I just wanted to be careful today," he said after his lap. "You know, I've had a tough couple of weeks and been beat down pretty bad as any driver can be, but I feel like I got the best team in the garage. As bad as I've done here lately, they're behind me 100 percent, and the sponsors have been calling all week, they're behind us. It was a tough day yesterday, so to just get qualified today was a chore, and we did it. No problems today, and we'll have to go race hard tomorrow and see if we can get us some points back."
In contrast, Jeremy Mayfield was ecstatic with his starting spot. Not so much because he needed the help to get a top-10 start, but more because it's another reminder that the team is ranked in the top 10 -- eighth, to be exact -- and on pace to make its second-straight playoff.
"We've got to keep doing what we're doing," Mayfield said. "I'm not going to say we're comfortable with where we're sitting in the points right now by any means, but I feel like we've got a good chance to finish in the top 10. We're going to take it one week at a time and not get wrapped up in thinking we've already got a spot in the Chase."
As for this weekend, starting from the eighth position on the grid will help -- and Mayfield says so will the fact that he and the team feel like they know what it takes to be successful at a road course.
"We've got several top-10 finishes on road courses," he said. "Nobody knows that. They won't be looking for us until we show up in the top 10 or top five and maybe have a shot to win this thing. I'm cool with it. If we get recognition or don't get recognition, we're still there week in and week out. If somebody counts us out and thinks we're gone we show back up again. I think we've shown that when the going gets tough we pretty much get going."
Dale Jarrett, ranked ninth, said that with such little time on the track, only the truly good teams and strong drivers would be able to come up with a fast lap in qualifying. True or not, he's got himself a top-10 starting spot. Now, he'll wait and see if his theory pans out for the "top" drivers during the race.
"[You] just have to go out -- [without having] been on the track to make a lap -- and get the most that you can," he said. "We'll just have to make some good decisions tomorrow."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.