NASCAR picks pack: Ambrose as good as it gets at Watkins Glen; Dale Jr. not so much

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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WHEN: August 12, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 1:19 p.m. ET

WHERE: Watkins Glen International

TRACK DESCRIPTION: 7-turn. 2.45-mile road course

BROADCAST: ESPN | RACE LENGTH: 90 laps, 220.5 miles

The lowdown

Watkins Glen is the superspeedway of road courses. Based on their statistics, most stock car drivers would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between Sonoma and the Glen because it really does not matter how fast a car is if half the time is spent in the dirt. But, in reality, the two tracks could not be less similar.

Last year's pole speed at the Glen was more than 30 miles per hour faster than at Sonoma and that sense of speed is enhanced by narrow runoffs on each side of the track. That changes the way successful drivers approach the course. Sonoma is akin to a short track because drivers have to slow dramatically entering the corners, which allows the competition to close ranks rapidly. The Glen's corners are longer and faster, so good handling cars can get and maintain a little separation.

Watkins Glen has several bottlenecks -- places on the track that not only narrows to a single groove, but where there is no room to escape. The esses, the bus stop chicane on the backstretch and the exit to the outer loop have been the site of some incredible accidents in recent years that involved road-course ringers and NASCAR points leaders alike.

That should strike fear into the hearts of many of driver in the top 10 in points because only four of them have average finishes the last three years that make them among the 10 best this week. Nearly all 10 positions inside the top 10 are separated by less than eight points, so there could be some major movement among the Chase contenders this week.

10 best drivers at Watkins Glen

Over the past three races at Watkins Glen, these drivers have the best average finish.

1. Marcos Ambrose
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 2.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 2.25 in 4 attempts

Ambrose has enough road-racing experience from his native Australia that he can tell the difference between Sonoma and the Glen and it shows. He has been great on both courses, but really excels on this wide-open track. In 2008, he started dead last in somewhat controversial circumstances when qualification was rained out and the No. 21 Wood Bros. Ford was awarded a position in the field because past champion Bill Elliott was listed as the driver of record. Ambrose shut the noise out and drove to third in a short 220-mile race and he's never finished worse than that at the Glen. Last year, he finally got his first Cup victory on the final restart by passing both Brad Keselowski and the leader Kyle Busch.

2. Juan Pablo Montoya
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 4.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 11.40 in 5 attempts

Montoya has been less perfect than Ambrose but just as consistent at the Glen. If not for getting run over from behind by Kevin Harvick in Turn 1 on a restart in his inaugural attempt, he would have an uninterrupted string of top 10s on this track in five starts. His worst result in the last four races was a seventh. That was earned last year and his effort at Sonoma earlier this season was marred by mechanical gremlins. This could be the early signs of a decline for the former F1 driver, but he will choose to focus on the victory he earned at the Glen in 2010 instead. Once in the cockpit, drivers have a knack for forgetting about the bad races and convincing themselves they are invincible.

3. Kyle Busch
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 5.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 9.29 in 7 attempts

Busch is twice as good at Watkins Glen as Sonoma. His career average finish on the California course is 18.6; at the Glen, he has an average of 9.6 and even that is marred by one bad race in his first attempt. Ignore his inaugural ineptitude and his average for the last six races is a stellar 5.3 that includes a victory in 2009. He's going to need a strong run after falling four positions last week and dropping out of Chase contention. But he is still the driver everyone 11th through 20th needs to be worried about this week because another win will force Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano back into a scenario that requires them to win or miss the Chase.

4. Carl Edwards
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 6.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 8.71 in 7 attempts

If Edwards can win, he will hold his fate in his hands again because he is ahead of Gordon and Newman in the points and would stake the current claim to the second wild-card berth. Based on his overall road-course record, that would seem unlikely because he has only four top fives in 15 combined starts at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. The good news is that he has been much stronger in New York than California. His best finish at the Glen is third, but his best race may have been on a Monday morning in 2009. He won the pole that weekend and ran with the leaders much of the day before finishing fifth.

5. Brad Keselowski
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 11.00 in 2 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 11.00 in 2 attempts

Keselowski could be a wild card this week. He was in contention to win last year and that came on the heels of a 10th-place finish at Sonoma, but the remainder of his road-course exploits have been all over the board. In five combined starts on the twisty tracks, he has a runner-up finish, another top 10, one more top 15 and a top 20. The fifth and final result was a 35th at Sonoma in his inaugural attempt, so fans are not going to find any kind of insight from his record. Last year's pair of top 10s came when he had a lot of momentum on his side and that is true this season as well. Since finishing 12th in the Toyota/Save Mart 350k at Sonoma, he has swept the top 10 in five starts and won at Kentucky.

6. Tony Stewart
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 11.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 7.08 in 13 attempts

Stewart is quietly regaining his form after a disappointing spring. He finished third in Pocono's first race in June and backed that up with two second-place finishes. One of these came at Sonoma, but he momentarily lost that momentum with a disastrous run at Kentucky. Since then he has finished 12th or better in his last four races and he has to be in a great frame of mind to contest the Glen. Stewart has more wins (5) on this track than any other driver and the most recent of these came in 2009. That capped off an incredible streak of six races in which he finished either first or second.

7. Matt Kenseth
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 13.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 15.58 in 12 attempts

Kenseth needs to stop his downward spiral after getting involved in wrecks in back-to-back weeks at Indy and Pocono. Neither of those accidents were his fault, but that might not make a difference if he has another bad run this weekend. A road course would seem to be an unlikely place for him to turn his luck around, but Kenseth has actually been decent on this track. He owes his position among the 10 best this week to consistency with top-15 finishes in his last five attempts, but none of those have been top 10s. The driver of the No. 17 doesn't have to contend for a victory in order to reverse his fortune, but he really needs to score a top 10, which would be his first on this track since 2004.

8. Brian Vickers
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 14.50 in 2 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 20.29 in 7 attempts

Like Kenseth, Vickers also owes his position in the top 10 this week to consistency. His last three races at Watkins Glen came in the Red Bull Racing No. 83 and despite that team's pedigree in Formula 1, they did not have the equipment to challenge for victories. Road courses reward driver skill to a greater degree than nearly any other track type, however, and Vickers proved he was capable of challenging for at least a top 10. He narrowly missed that mark in 2009 and scored an 11th, but his performance at Sonoma this June makes up for any perceived inadequacy. He finished fourth in the Toyota/Save Mart 350k and ran with the leaders all afternoon.

9. Martin Truex Jr.
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 15.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 14.33 in 6 attempts

Truex pops up on the leaderboard on road courses from time to time and he is nearly always stronger at Watkins Glen than Sonoma. In six previous seasons, he finished best at the Glen four times and with a 22nd-place effort at Sonoma this June, he is practically guaranteed to add to that record. In 13 combined starts on the twisty tracks, he has two top fives and two more top 10s; both top fives and one of the top 10s came on this course. He also has some momentum on his side with back-to-back top 10s at Indy and Pocono in the last two weeks of 2012 plus another eighth-place finish five weeks ago at Kentucky.

9. Kurt Busch
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 15.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 19.82 in 11 attempts

Even fans who have grown to hate Busch had to feel a little emotional about his third-place finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350k this June. He has been the creator of his own misfortune through his inability to control his anger, but no one has ever doubted he could drive. Still, NASCAR is a balance of machine and man. If one part of that equation is missing, the other can rarely make up the difference, but there are a handful of tracks on which raw power takes a backseat to driver skill. On the heels of a second-place finish at the Glen in 2010, he could have another strong run this week, but this is the same car that Boris Said was unable to drive to the lead last year.

OTHERS OF NOTE

12. Jimmie Johnson
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 16.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 14.20 in 10 attempts

Johnson failed to make the top 10 this week because of one bad run at Watkins Glen. He sustained crash damage in 2010 and limped home 28th, but the remainder of his last five races on this track ended in results of 12th or better. In fact, with that one dreadful race removed from his record, he has swept the top 15 on road courses since the summer of 2007. Johnson doesn't need to win this week, so the team can relax and concentrate on getting a solid result that keeps their momentum alive. Often, when pressure is removed from the equation, drivers actually pick up speed and Johnson could have a career race at the Glen and possibly even challenge for the victory.

13. Kevin Harvick
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 17.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 12.91 in 11 attempts

For a while, it appeared Harvick was having considerable difficulty in finding his rhythm at the Glen. He won the 2006 edition of this race and finished second the following year at Sonoma, but when he returned to the Glen he got involved in an accident with Montoya. He rebounded to finished sixth in 2008 and then slipped into the mid-30s once more in 2009. His last two efforts have been much more consistent, however, and that is a good sign for this week. In 2010, Harvick nearly cracked the top 10 with an 11th-place result. He finished sixth on this track last year and swept the top 10 on NASCAR's pair of road courses, which diminishes the impact from a modest 16th-place result in this year's Toyota/Save Mart 350k.

13. Clint Bowyer
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 17.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 17.50 in 6 attempts

Bowyer is one of the drivers who seem to know the difference between Watkins Glen and Sonoma, but he apparently prefers the California course. His average finish at Sonoma is 9.7 in seven attempts, which makes it statistically his best track. An average of 17.5 in six races at Watkins Glen ranks this track 19th of the 23 that currently host NASCAR races. Still, there is a little hope for his fans this week; Bowyer finished ninth in the 2009 race and even though that is his only top 10 to date, he nearly added another last year with an 11th in the Heluva Good! Dips at the Glen.

18. Greg Biffle
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 20.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 25.78 in 9 attempts

In his first four attempts at Watkins Glen, Biffle's best result was the 30th he recorded in his first try in 2003. He steadily declined until he bottomed out with back-to-back 38th-place results in 2004 and 2005. He was an object lesson to how difficult handicapping NASCAR races can be when he finished 10th in 2007 and fifth in the Monday morning edition of the 2009 Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen, but the vast majority of his attempts have simply been disappointing. With his pair of successes removed, he has finished outside the top 20 in seven of nine races on this track and he was back to his old ways last year with a 31st.

26. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 26.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 22.25 in 12 attempts

If Kenseth rallies this week at Watkins Glen, there is very little Earnhardt will be able to do about it. Driver 88 has three career road course top 10s and all of them came on this track in consecutive races from 2003 through 2005. Since then, he has come close to adding another top 10 a time or two and nearly all of those near-misses occurred at the Glen, but the fact remains that he has not finished better than 11th in his last 13 races on this track type. With a combined average of 24.2 on road courses, he's going to be looking forward to when the series returns to Michigan next week.

27. Denny Hamlin
Last three races average finish at Watkins Glen: 27.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Watkins Glen: 17.17 in 6 attempts

Hamlin got off to a strong start on road courses. He finished 12th in the 2006 Toyota/Save Mart 350k and followed that up with a 10th at the Glen. The next year, he finished 10th at Sonoma and nearly won the 2007 Centurion Boats at the Glen. In his first eight attempts on the twisty tracks, he posted six top 10s and seven top 15s. Unfortunately, that literally came to a crashing halt on lap 43 of the 2010 Toyota/Save Mart 350k. A hood pin broke on his Toyota and flew up to cover his windshield. After making repairs, Hamlin was caught speeding on pit road, and 20 laps later, he was swept into a seven-car accident in the hairpin, ultimately finishing 34th. Hamlin has not had an incident-free race since then on road courses and he enters this weekend with a five-race streak of 30-something results.

All Drivers: Last three races at Watkins Glen
DriverAvg. finish (attempts)DriverAvg. finish (attempts)
1. Marcos Ambrose2.00 (3)18. Kasey Kahne 20.00 (3)
2. Juan Pablo Montoya4.67 (3)18. Greg Biffle 20.00 (3)
3. Kyle Busch5.00 (3)21. Jamie McMurray 21.00 (3)
4. Carl Edwards 6.67 (3)22. Paul Menard22.33 (3)
5. Brad Keselowski11.00 (2)23. Bobby Labonte24.67 (3)
6. Tony Stewart11.67 (3)24. Sam Hornish Jr.25.00 (2)
7. Matt Kenseth13.67 (3)25. David Ragan25.67 (3)
8. Brian Vickers 14.50 (2)26. Dale Earnhardt Jr.26.67 (3)
9. Martin Truex Jr.15.67 (3)27. Denny Hamlin27.67 (3)
9. Kurt Busch15.67 (3)28. Regan Smith28.50 (2)
11. Ryan Newman16.33 (3)29. Boris Said31.33 (3)
12. Jimmie Johnson16.67 (3)30. Scott Speed34.67 (3)
13. Kevin Harvick17.33 (3)31. David Gilliland35.33 (3)
13. Clint Bowyer17.33 (3)32. Joe Nemechek41.00 (3)
15. Casey Mears 17.50 (2)33. Michael McDowell41.50 (2)
16. Joey Logano18.00 (3)34. JJ Yeley43.00 (2)
17. Jeff Burton18.67 (3)35. Dave Blaney43.67 (3)
18. Jeff Gordon20.00 (3)

Caution to the wind

Most caution flags: 10 (2006 AMD at the Glen)

Fewest caution flags: 0 (1990 Budweiser at the Glen, 1965 Grand National Race No. 33, 1957 Grand National Race No. 35)

Average number of caution flags per race: 4.9

Final Caution, last five races:
August 2011: Lap 87 of 92 - 1-car accident on backstretch (Paul Menard) to set up a green-white-checkered finish. In addition, there was a last-lap 3-car crash that caused the race to end under yellow (Boris Said, David Ragan, and David Reutimann).
August 2010: Lap 72 of 90 - 2-car accident in turn 7 (Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson).
August 2009: Lap 72 of 90 - debris in turn 1.
August 2008: Lap 72 of 90 - 9-car accident on frontstretch (Michael McDowell, Dave Blaney, David Gilliland, Reed Sorenson, Bobby Labonte, Michael Waltrip, Max Papis, Sam Hornish Jr., and Joe Nemechek), with red flag.
August 2007: Lap 81 of 90 - 1-car spin in bus stop chicane (PJ Jones).

Most caution laps: 36 (1988 The Budweiser at the Glen)

Fewest caution laps: 0 (1990 Budweiser at the Glen, 1965 Grand National Race No 33, 1957 Grand National Race No 35)

Average number of caution laps per race: 13.1

Leading the way

Most leaders: 11 (2006 AMD at the Glen, 2001 Global Crossing @ the Glen)

Fewest leaders: 1 (1957 Grand National Race No. 35)

Average number of leaders: 6.7

Most lead changes: 14 (2011 Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen, 2006 AMD at the Glen, 1991 Budweiser at the Glen)

Fewest lead changes: 0 (1957 Grand National Race No. 35)

Average number of lead changes: 9.4

Victory Lane

Last five winners at Watkins Glen (starting position):
August 2011: Marcos Ambrose (3rd)
August 2010: Juan Pablo Montoya (3rd)
August 2009: Tony Stewart (13th)
August 2008: Kyle Busch (1st on points)
August 2007: Tony Stewart (5th)

Worst starting position for race winner: 18th - Steve Park (August 2000), but the second place driver started as far back as 39th in 2005 (Robby Gordon) and 43rd in 2004 (Ron Fellows)

A race at Watkins Glen has been won by the pole sitter 9 times and from the front row 11 times in 29 races.

Active winners at Watkins Glen

Tony Stewart (5)
Jeff Gordon (4)
Mark Martin (3)
Marcos Ambrose (1)
Kyle Busch (1)
Kevin Harvick (1)
Juan Pablo Montoya (1)

First-time winners at Pocono

Marcos Ambrose (2011 Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen)
Steve Park (2000 Global Crossing at the Glen)

Watkins Glen vs. Infineon (since 2009)

To experienced road-course racers, Watkins Glen and Sonoma are completely different tracks, but NASCAR's best road racers tend to do well on both courses equally. There are several drivers, however, who perform better on one track than the other, so here is a comparison of average finishes since 2009.

DriverCombined Avg.AttemptsWatkins GlenSonoma
Marcos Ambrose4.0072.005.50
Jimmie Johnson9.57716.674.25
Jeff Gordon11.71720.005.50
Carl Edwards12.2976.6716.50
Juan Pablo Montoya12.2974.6718.00
Tony Stewart12.43711.6713.00
Clint Bowyer13.71717.3311.00
Kurt Busch14.00715.6712.75
Kasey Kahne14.14720.009.75
Kyle Busch14.8675.0022.25
Kevin Harvick15.57717.3314.25
Brad Keselowski15.80511.0019.00
Matt Kenseth16.57713.6718.75
Brian Vickers17.00514.5018.67
Joey Logano17.43718.0017.00
Greg Biffle17.86720.0016.25
Ryan Newman17.86716.3319.00
Jamie McMurray18.00721.0015.75
Martin Truex Jr20.57715.6724.25
Paul Menard21.00722.3320.00
Jeff Burton21.29718.6723.25
Casey Mears21.40517.5024.00
Mark Martin22.50622.3322.67
Bobby Labonte25.57724.6726.25
Dale Earnhardt Jr25.86726.6725.25
Boris Said26.14731.3322.25
David Ragan27.29725.6728.50
Denny Hamlin27.71727.6727.75
David Gilliland27.86735.3322.25
Regan Smith28.60528.5028.67
Travis Kvapil30.00330.0030.00
Sam Hornish Jr31.00425.0037.00
Scott Speed32.57734.6731.00
JJ Yeley36.25443.0029.50
Michael McDowell37.67341.5030.00
Dave Blaney39.71743.6736.75
Joe Nemechek41.00741.0041.00
Beaver's Best Bets for Watkins Glen

Winner: Marcos Ambrose. Winning back-to-back races on any track is difficult and with the myriad strategies that get played out on road courses, Watkins Glen is no exception. If anyone can do it, however, Ambrose is the man with a worst result on this track of only third.

Dark horse top 10: Juan Pablo Montoya. Ambrose could easily be both the favorite to win and the dark horse for a top 10, but Montoya is a little deeper in the standings and fits the criteria equally well. He has not been dominant at the Glen in every race he entered, but he is riding a four-race top-10 streak and should be a safe bet.

Don't bet on it: Denny Hamlin. An accident last week sets the tone for this week's disappointment as well. If he does not wreck, odds are good that a mechanical failure or bad pit call will derail his effort.

Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10

Fewer and fewer races are predictable these days, but the cream tends to rise to the top on road courses. Five of this week's predicted top 10 have earned three Watkins Glen top 10s in their last four starts.

1. Marcos Ambrose
2. Kyle Busch
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
4. Tony Stewart
5. Carl Edwards
6. Jeff Gordon
7. Brad Keselowski
8. Joey Logano
9. Jimmie Johnson
10. Matt Kenseth

LAST WEEK'S PICKS

If not for an accident on what turned out to be the final restart, I probably would have picked the winner at Pocono; instead, Jimmie Johnson went into the loss column. My second-place pick Denny Hamlin was involved in the same incident, but was running only about 15th at the time.

For any driver correctly picked in the top 10, five points are awarded. For any driver picked in his exact finishing position, five bonus points are awarded. For correctly predicting the winner, a total of 20 points are awarded. So for a perfect top 10, a total of 110 points are available. One point is subtracted for each driver picked who finishes outside the top 10.

Predicted DriverActual FinishPoints
1.Jimmie Johnson14-1
2.Denny Hamlin29-1
3.Jeff Gordon15
4.Dale Earnhardt Jr.32-1
5.Ryan Newman65
6.Greg Biffle15-1
7.Kasey Kahne25
8.Tony Stewart55
9.Martin Truex Jr.35
10.Mark Martin12-1

Total points for Pocono = 20 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)

Season best: 37 points (Charlotte, May); Season worst: 2 points (Daytona, July); Season avg. 21.8 points (11 races)

For more stats and analysis, follow @FantasyRace on Twitter.

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