NASCAR: Storylines entering important Watkins Glen weekend

WATKINS GLEN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 04: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet, drives during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 04, 2019 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

NASCAR‘s three premier series head north to Watkins Glen International Speedway this weekend, a high-speed, 7-turn road course located in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The Cup and Xfinity Series make their return to the 2.45-mile circuit after skipping the track last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Truck Series races at The Glen for the first time since 2000.

NASCAR returning to Watkins Glen is a story in itself, but some even bigger stories lie on the track.

Three-peat?

Chase Elliott has unofficially claimed the title of NASCAR’s new road course king, and it all began with his first career win at Watkins Glen in 2018. He followed up his 2018 victory with a repeat performance in 2019, and will now look to defend his title once again in Upstate New York.

Of Elliott’s 13 Cup Series victories, seven have come on the road course variety. He’s won two of the last three Cup Series races (COTA & Road America) and finished second in the non-win (Sonoma). Will anyone be able to stop Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen this weekend?

Is Almirola Safe?

When the NASCAR Cup Series last took the track on July 18, Aric Almirola scored an upset victory at New Hampshire to shake up the standings. Winning a race typically locks a team into the playoffs; however, that might not necessarily be the case with Almirola.

Thirteen drivers have won Cup Series races this season with four races remaining in the regular season. Just 16 drivers make the Cup Series field, meaning Almirola could be out of a playoff spot if several new drivers win before the start of the playoffs. Almirola is currently 23rd in the overall standings, and if he maintained that position, new 2021 winners could push him out.

Right now, the playoff field is comprised of the 13 winning drivers plus the overall points leader, Denny Hamlin. The overall points leader makes the playoffs and receives 15-playoff points regardless if they win a race or not, and Hamlin is currently in that position. Kyle Larson is just 13 points behind him, but Hamlin has a strong chance to make the playoffs regardless. That makes 14 drivers in the 16 driver field.

If Hamlin held on to the regular-season points title without winning a race, just three new winners sitting higher than Almirola’s points position would push the No. 10 driver out. Those drivers would be Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Daniel Suarez. Any of those drivers are more than capable of winning races down the stretch to shake up the playoffs even more.

The ‘Dinger

AJ Allmendinger will run in the Xfinity Series this weekend at a track that he’s more than familiar with. Allmendinger won his only Cup Series race at The Glen in 2014 for JTG Daugherty Racing. He’s always had success at Watkins Glen, picking up several top-10s and winning other road course races in the Xfinity Series.

Allmendinger is running the Xfinity Series full-time this season, and his two victories thus far have placed him squarely in championship contention. He’ll have a great opportunity to pick up a third win at Watkins Glen this weekend if he can beat out Xfinity Series road course king Austin Cindric, the 2019 race winner. Never count out AJ Allmendinger at a road course, especially at Watkins Glen.

Xfinity Winless Surprises

As the Xfinity Series presses towards the playoffs, we’ve seen a few surprise non-winners through 19 races. Kyle Busch won all five of his allotted races this season, and points leader Austin Cindric has four. Allmendinger, Justin Allgaier, and Ty Gibbs each have two wins apiece, while Josh Berry, Myatt Snider, Jeb Burton, and Christopher Bell each have one.

That leaves names like Harrison Burton, Justin Haley, Noah Gragson, and Brandon Jones winless, all drivers who won last season. Harrison Burton and Haley are both Cup Racing full-time next season, while Gragson and Jones are fighting for rides at the next level. Will one of the four score a win at Watkins Glen, or will a road course specialist take the victory?

Truck Series Regular-Season Finale

The Truck Series will race at Watkins Glen on Saturday for the first time in 21 years, and it should bring plenty of drama. Many drivers in the field have either limited or no experience at The Glen, shaping up for an interesting start on the challenging road course. Additionally, Saturday’s race is also the regular-season finale for the Truck Series.

Seven of the 10 playoff spots have already been filled, meaning three spots haven’t been clinched. John Hunter Nemechek, Ben Rhodes, Todd Gilliland, Austin Hill, and Sheldon Creed have all clinched with wins, while Zane Smith and Matt Crafton have clinched on points.

Carson Hocevar sits eighth in the standings and automatically clinches if a there’s a 2021 repeat winner or a non-points earning winner. Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith are both in positions to clinch under the same scenario as long as Friesen earns three points and Smith earns 15 in the race.

If there’s a new points-earning winner, the lower of Friesen and Smith would be out of the playoffs unless Hocevar essentially finishes last without any stage points. Derek Kraus, Tyler Ankrum, and Johnny Sauter can all clinch with help or a win.

Austin Wayne Self, Ryan Truex, Hallie Deegan, Tanner Grey, and Chase Purdy can only make it into the playoffs with a win at Watkins Glen.

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The NASCAR Truck Series race at Watkins Glen starts at 12:30 pm on Saturday with coverage on FS1. CNBC will carry the 4 pm Xfinity Series race following the trucks, while NBCSN will carry Sunday’s 3 pm Cup Series race. The ARCA Menards Series also races at Watkins Glen with a 6 pm start time on Friday on FS1.