When Tony Stewart looked at the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, you better believe Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at the Watkins Glen International road course was high up on the list of races he thought he could win.
After all, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion was victorious at The Glen in 2002. And 2004. And ’05, ’07 and ’09 as well. With five victories on the seven-turn, 2.45-mile road course, Stewart surely would have been one of the pre-race favorites.
But when he broke his right leg during a sprint car race in Iowa on Monday night, Stewart’s Watkins Glen hopes ended abruptly, and maybe his hopes of a fourth title, too. Stewart is definitely out for Sunday, to be replaced by Italian racer Max Papis, who is certainly capable of putting the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet up front.
With Stewart out, Marcos Ambrose becomes the overwhelming favorite and with good reason: He won the last two Cup races at The Glen, as well as three NASCAR Nationwide Series races. In his five prior Cup starts at The Glen, Ambrose’s worst finish is third and his average finish is 2.0. He should be money on Sunday and a victory would certainly introduce him into the discussion of a wild-card spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
And yet, Ambrose has struggled this season, finishing inside the top 10 just once since Martinsville. Can he suddenly pick it up and regain the magic that’s been lacking so far this season?
If not, Ambrose will have plenty of competition.
Brad Keselowski has finished second to Ambrose in each of the last two races at Watkins Glen, and with Stewart out of the picture, the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion will have the bit between his teeth as he attempts to win his first race of the year and move back into the top 10 in points.
Another driver to watch for is Kyle Busch, who has one victory, three top-five and seven top-10 finishes in his last seven races at Watkins Glen. Busch nearly won last year, leading on the last lap when he got punted by Keselowski. Doubtless, Busch will be eager to avenge last year’s debacle and get back to Victory Lane.
The most curious driver at Watkins Glen might be Jeff Gordon, who won four of five races here between 1997 and 2001, but since 2002 has posted a woeful average finish of 18.92.
Former Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya, of course, is always a threat to win on a road course, and he could be heard from again on Sunday.
But the smart money suggests that the three guys who last year went into the last lap with a chance to win — Ambrose, Keselowski and Kyle Busch — are again three of the guys to beat.
And if you want a true dark horse, there’s always AJ Allmendinger in James Finch’s Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. Now that would be quite a story.