WATKINS GLEN, NY — Chris Buescher's unlikely victory at Pocono Raceway last Sunday put an interesting twist into NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"I know we are throwing a wrench at a lot of peoples' brackets for the Chase," Buescher remarked. "It's going to be a pretty wild ride to the end."
And another twist could be added this weekend on the Watkins Glen International road course.
Nobody really expected Pocono to spit a surprise race winner out of the Pennsylvania mountain fog, but Buescher and Front Row Motorsports took advantage of the circumstances to land a provisional berth in NASCAR's 16-driver playoffs.
A much more likely venue for a shocking result is Watkins Glen. As one of two road races out of 36 on the Sprint Cup schedule, it truly stands out in advance as a Wild Card event.
The days of one-off "road-course ringers" are gone, but Watkins Glen gives full-time Cup drivers with substantial road racing experience the opportunity to win their way into the Chase, even if they are not regular front-runners in a series dominated by ovals.
In the not-too-distant past, road racing specialists Robby Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose grasped the opportunity to win Cup races at Watkins Glen and would have qualified for the Chase had the current format been in effect. More recently, A.J. Allmendinger triumphed at The Glen in 2014 for JTG Daugherty Racing to become the first driver to earn his way into the 16-driver Chase as a road course Wild Card winner.
For an ex-road racer like Allmendinger and a small team like JTG Daugherty, the road races tilt the playing ground in their favor, allowing them to overcome the greater resources that NASCAR's superteams enjoy.
With such a perceived advantage, the danger for Allmendinger is to not let the pressure of being a favorite to win get to him.
"Watkins Glen and Sonoma — just road course racing in general — are places where I think a driver can make more of a difference, but you've still got to have the right package," Allmendinger said.
"Obviously, for a win you're going to take whatever risk you have to," he added. "We just have to go out there and do our jobs." Road races also tend to put a premium on fuel and tire strategy, which also occasionally produces a surprise winner.
But more often than not, when fuel strategy comes into play, it works in favor of the more experienced teams and drivers and their ability to read the race and react quickly to unexpected developments.
Passing is more difficult than it is on most ovals, so track position is king and an experienced driver who gets out front is generally able to defend his position.
Fuel and tire strategy is expected to be even more critical than usual at Watkins Glen this year. Teams found they could not stretch their fuel long enough to complete this year's road race at Sonoma on two stops. More importantly, Watkins Glen was just fully repaved and Goodyear has brought an extremely conservative tire that has shown very little wear in testing and practice.
On Friday, drivers were setting their best times ten or even fifteen laps into a run, with some predicting that the 90-lap race could be completed without a tire change.
"The biggest thing is pit strategy," remarked Kyle Busch, a two-time Watkins Glen winner. "Obviously, you've got to pick and choose when you're going to pit and stick to your plan. Whether or not we can still do it on two stops, I'm unsure of because Sonoma turned into a three-stop race for us all because the new fuel mileage is a little bit off from where we were last year.
"The tires are lasting a long time, but it's like you're on ice the first few laps," he added. "It's a conservative tire, and that way, we are not going to have any tire issues, but it just provides for a lack of grip early in the run."
Fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. believes the track will continue to pick up speed as rubber is put down over the weekend.
"The track is definitely a lot more challenging with the new pavement," Truex said. "The tires are really hard — they don't wear out — which is typical for repave whether it's an oval or a road course. So you don't really change tires or wear tires out, you just keep running on them and they get faster and faster and faster.
"I think it's really challenging just to figure out where your car is, because at some point in the race you have to put tires on," he added. "That's a big challenge but we'll see where it goes."
The other aspect of the repave is that many of the curbs lining the 2.45-mile, nine turn course have been raised or reprofiled. That led to some cars getting slightly airborne during practice as drivers worked out just how much of an advantage they could gain by bouncing over curbs rather than going around them.
"I don't remember all of my old [braking and turn-in] marks, I just remember there are new ones out there and it took me a little while to kind of get my marks right," said Toyota driver Carl Edwards. "I ran over the curbs wrong a couple times and found some slick spots on the curbs.
"It's fun to show up at a place and have to catalog everything and remember where all the speed is."
Even Allmendinger, the 2014 winner and 2015 pole sitter, struggled to adapt. He had a rough first practice session and overcame a loose oil line in the afternoon to set the fastest time of the day.
"It looks the same but it drives different," he said. "There's a lot of new things around this place."