Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin last summer at the Glen. Gordon and Stewart have won 15 of the last 22 NASCAR Cup tour road races, and Stewart goes for two in a row at Watkins Glen International Sunday (Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Rain tires at the Glen this week?
NASCAR just did it with the Nationwide series at Montreal. And NASCAR first tested rain tires at Watkins Glen a few years back.
But Jimmie Johnson says ‘no way’ for rain tires in a Cup race.
“NASCAR made a statement last week that there is no way that the Cup cars would run on rain tires under any set of circumstances,” Johnson said.
“I enjoyed watching it, a lot like everyone did.
“But you want to put on a quality show….and I’m not sure our (Nationwide) cars were at speed (at Montreal) and easy enough to drive to really put on a quality show.
“I spoke to Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards and those guys, and they said they had an absolute blast. But I don’t think they put on a show for the fans.
“If you’re spending money to come sit in the grandstands and watch a race, you want to see a competitive race…and not a rain race where you have guys just tiptoeing around.”
So what was NASCAR really doing at Montreal?
ESPN’s broadcast from Pocono, despite a 40-minute rain delay, was essentially even with last year’s show, with a 4.5 rating. And ESPN2’s coverage of the Montreal race was up slightly from 2007, a 1.5 rating, from last year’s 1.4. For the season ESPN2’s coverage of the Nationwide series is averaging a 1.7, up 15 percent.
Road racing in this area began in Watkins Glen in upstate New York in 1948, when sports cars ran on the village streets around Lake Seneca. The Glen consists of 11 turns, and is a 2.454-mile layout. (Photo Credit: Racing One/Getty Images)
Well, that was last week, and this is this week, and Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon – both still winless this season – should be the men to beat at the New York road course.
But then maybe not.
But Johnson knows he’s probably not the pick either.
Still Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus do appear to have finally turned things around.
They came close to making it two-in-a-row Sunday at Pocono.
However this weekend they’ll be at Watkins Glen, and road courses really haven’t been their forte.
Hey, Denny: That’s cute, but doesn’t it go faster with all four wheels on the pavement? (Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Maybe running Saturday’s Nationwide race will give Johnson a brush-up for Sunday’s feature.
Johnson is also adding the Truck race at Bristol later this month; that too is a track where Johnson has yet to really shine.
“The primary reason would be to get more seat time and be more competitive Sunday in the Cup car,” Johnson says.
If Johnson and Knaus are finally back on track, it’s perfect timing, with the championship chase starting in just a few weeks.
“It’s just been hard work – We’ve been working extremely hard since January-February, when we realized we were off on the 1-1/2-miles,” Johnson says.
“We feel we’re doing the right things. But the tracks we’ve been at recently (like Indianapolis and Pocono) are pretty unique, tracks we won’t see in the chase.
Now that’s the game face Jeff Gordon will need this weekend at the Glen (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“So while I’m very proud about where we’re at, I’d still like to be a little nervous and concerned—and thinking our team does a better job hungry and not sitting back and feeling like we’re there.
“We’ve still got a lot of testing planned. The thing I look at the most would be our performance in Chicago (where he would have won, if not for a mistake on the final restart)….and think that will carry over.
“Then you get into some of the odd tracks in the chase, like Martinsville and Loudon and Phoenix. Those tracks we’ve run well at this year already.
“So I think we’re going in the right direction.
“But you just never know…There are some guys showing a lot of strength—Kyle Busch. When we get back on some of these big-banked tracks, I’m sure he’ll have his form back.
“And you look at Carl Edwards—Carl is pretty good on all types of tracks.”
At the moment the title chase is shaping up as Kyle Busch versus Carl Edwards versus Jimmie Johnson. “Right now it feels that way,” Johnson says. “But once you re-rack the points (essentially to zero for the final 10 races), everybody is on top of one another…and you’ve got guys like Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth is in it, or close to it.
“I see Matt as a championship contender each year. I see Jeff Gordon as a championship contender each year.”
Jimmie Johnson: but does he really need to run well at the Glen to be a title contender? (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Ah, but Gordon still hasn’t won this season, Stewart hasn’t won, Greg Biffle hasn’t won, Kevin Harvick hasn’t won, Kenseth hasn’t won, Mark Martin hasn’t won….
That’s a lot of catching up to do.
“I’m sure it’s frustrating,” Johnson says. “At the beginning of this year we went 20-some races without a win…and I found it odd I was being criticized for not winning.
“I look at some of the good performances Jeff has had. I look at Tony and imagine how frustrating it must be for him. You look at Charlotte, coming down to the final laps.
“As I continue on in my career I’m sure there’s going to be a point where I go through that. Nobody is immune to it. It happens to different people at different times.
“Quite honestly I’ve been fortunate to win all the races I have.
“You just never know when you’re going to stop winning.”
But Johnson says if he were betting on the championship this season, he’d probably bet on someone who’s been there before.
Hey, isn’t it time again for Juan Pablo Montoya to show us why he’s a world-class road racer? (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“Experience is great—You can just take it to the next level if you’ve been there before and you know what the pressures are going to be…even down to the race tracks and how they are going to evolve through a race if they take rubber,” Johnson says.
“Experience in anything is so crucial.
“It doesn’t mean it can’t be done as a rookie. It doesn’t mean somebody in the chase for the first time can’t win it, or somebody with less experience can’t win it.
“But from my own experience—even starting back to the championships I lost in the Off-Road ranks, like one by two points back in ’97, crushing—that experience taught me and helped me to be stronger today and deal with the pressures and championship battles.
“Carl is going to be one of the favorites for the championship. He’s shown strength on all forms of tracks. And he’s also shown a lot of maturity behind the wheel. That comes with experience.”
Knowing who to race and when to race could be key to not making those critical mistakes. And Johnson says there’s pressure all through the field: “Everybody is fighting for something right now.
“At the start of the year everyone is pretty easy going. When you get to this part of the season, silly season is starting, contracts are up, people need points to get into the chase, people need points to be in the top-35. There are just a lot of things going on.
“The intensity really ratchets up.”
And some of that intensity this fall may be between NASCAR and its perennial fall rival, the NFL. That could be a wild card in the next few weeks as this sport gears up for that challenge.
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Watkins Glen in 1957: Buck Baker winning in NASCAR’s first-ever stop at the now legendary road course. Can you pick the car brand? And, uh, Buck, aren’t you going the wrong way? (Photo Credit: Racing One/Getty Images)