There aren’t many road course specialists at The Glen this year, and they’re going to do their work on Saturday, not Sunday.
It wasn’t that long ago that a NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma or Watkins Glen made casual fans do a double take because there were plenty of names entered that didn’t immediately ring a bell. So-called road course ringers were prevalent, both in terms of lower funded teams subbing in specialists, and in the form of guys like Boris Said, who would primarily compete only in those two races hoping to steal a win.
This year? Not so much. A quick glance at the Cup Series entry list for the Go Bowling at The Glen finds 37 cars, almost entirely driven by the usual suspects. The one person who stands out as kind of, sort of a ringer is Parker Kligerman, who will be driving the No. 96 Toyota for Gaunt Brothers Racing instead of doing pit road reporting for NBC Sports, and even that’s a little bit of a stretch, though the last Cup race he ran this year was at Sonoma.
Meanwhile, the XFINITY Series race, the Zippo 200, has more specialists among its 43 hopefuls. Scott Heckert, driving the No. 8 Chevrolet for B.J. McLeod Motorsports, counts as one, as two of his three 2017 XFINITY starts were on toad courses. But the biggest one of all is AJ Allmendinger, who will make his first XFINITY Series appearance in five years behind the wheel of the No. 23 Chevrolet for GMS Racing. The Dinger, always a threat to win the Cup Series race at Watkins Glen, made just two stars during the 2013 XFINITY Series season, both at road course races, and he won them both.
There are more Cup stars gearing up for Saturday as well, including the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, and Kyle Larson, who has won the last three XFINITY Series races they entered. They just don’t stand out as much as Allmendinger, who is known for his special affinity for getting around The Glen.
So why aren’t there more one-off Cup Series entries and specialist drivers among the mid-pack? The cost of Cup Series competition is certainly a factor. But there’s also the sense that all the drivers in the top series have simply gotten better at road course racing in general, so the idea that you could just show up or swap someone into inferior equipment and have a chance to win is a fallacy.
For example, Martin Truex Jr., who never won at The Glen prior to 2017, took the checkered flag in this very event, his last regular season win before he went on to rocket through the playoffs en route to the championship. His Big 3-mate Kyle Busch is a two-time Watkins Glen Cup Series winner, and Kevin Harvick has tasted victory there too, though that 2006 triumph seems like a lifetime ago now.
In other words, just because left and right turns are involved as Watkins Glen doesn’t mean it’s any less likely that the Big 3 is going to be a force, and while it was fun rooting for the ringers, they wouldn’t have much of a chance anyway. The few that are left are in the XFINITY Series race, so you’ll have to tune in Saturday, not Sunday, to watch them do their thing.