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The Glen: Stewart vs Ambrose? Or will there be some surprises? Maybe Edwards or the Biff...

  OUCH! This is what can happen in that battle to get single-file for the esses. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Sonoma was wild and zany, and a major wreckfest, that left many drivers harshly criticizing others.
   But it was a great show.
   However this lightning-fast road course is decidedly different in style and tone, typically, than NASCAR's Northern California stop.
   Nevertheless, there are more than a few potential twists in Sunday's 220-miler here.
   Tony Stewart has to be Sunday's favorite, considering his record here.
   But he may face a few new obstacles:
   First, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, whose teams are on the rebound this summer.
   Then maybe Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya.
   And of course Marcos Ambrose.
   "I am just enjoying the wave we are riding right now," Edwards says. He's on the pole – his first pole in fact since 2008. "We are making a comeback and it feels good."

  Carl Edwards isn't shy about throwing the car into the corners on NASCAR's road courses. He's a big winner on the Nationwide road courses; what can he do here Sunday? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Edwards' road racing talents – wide-open, Rusty Wallace-style. That worked for him in last summer's Nationwide win at Montreal, and it worked for him in that June Nationwide win at Road America.
   "I just saw a clip of the Road America win on TV, and that was a case where we had a fast car all day, and it made it so much fun to race," Edwards says.
   "If this car is as fast as I think it is, it is going to be a blast."
   Edwards will be bracketed by McMurray and Montoya for the 1 p.m. start.
   McMurray says his eyes are going to be on Ambrose: "We all think we're road racing aces until Marcos comes out and runs with us.  It's amazing the talent he has every weekend, but on road courses he really is above the rest of us by a fair amount."
   After all the crashing at Sonoma, the tour's last road course event, what to expect here?
   "Sonoma," Stewart says, "is a situation where you've got pretty good speed straights and very tight corners that are very low speed.  It gives guys an opportunity to lose their minds and put themselves in positions that put other guys in a bad spot. And that's how they get wrecked or wreck somebody.
   "Here at Watkins Glen we're running faster, and we get strung out a little more, and there really aren't any of those opportunities. You're not going to see three-wide going into a braking zone. We were seeing four-side at Sonoma."

  The favorite, Tony Stewart. But it would be only his first win of the season....and the best car haven't been winning that many lately on the NASCAR tour (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Can Edwards use his go-for-broke road course style to win here? He's certainly upbeat about everything now, with Ford and Jack Roush's team on the comeback:  "You guys know how much we have struggled and how hard things have been," Edwards says, pointing to sluggish qualifying runs over the season as a particular issue to solve.
   "This last month we have been going the right direction, and it feels good," Edwards says.
    And here?  Edwards insists his near-record qualifying run "was kind of a conservative lap. Maybe that is my problem.
    "I think we've got a car that can win the race; the trick right now is to be mentally tough.
    "I am used to starting at the back and then being strong at the end. It will be nice to start up front and race up front and get a feel for the pace of the race."
    That's typically hard to get here for guys stuck back in the pack early.
    One possible issue: by eliminating the 'sand traps' there will likely be fewer cautions. And that could turn this thing into a gas mileage race.
   And with the possibility of three green-white-checkereds at the end, that could extend the race by 10 laps or so.
   Crews usually try to make the 90 laps on two stops, 30 laps in, then 60 laps in. And that's about the fuel window. But if the race goes 100 laps.....well, early pit stops to cover that gap could be one strategy, even though that might cost a driver track position.
    "The race," Edwards says "has the potential to be a way different race."


  Joe Gibbs' guys are in a slump, says Kyle Busch (yellow car here, tailing teammate Denny Hamlin up the esses). What's that all about? Maybe there's more to these secret NASCAR penalties than just $50,000 fines....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Jeff Gordon, who has won more NASCAR road races than anyone else, but who hasn't won a road race since 2006, has had Scott Pruett standing by this weekend for possible relief work, while Gordon and his wife await the imminent birth of their second child.
   Gordon picks Stewart and Ambrose as the men to beat. Ambrose, of course, dominated Sonoma until he stumbled by stalling his engine under caution in the final miles.
   Gordon's take on the Glen: "The toughest part is going fast and attacking all the corners and not making mistakes. 
   "It's easy to make mistakes here because you have so many turns and braking zones and obstacles, with the down-shifts, like wheel-hopping in turn one.  It's just really, really difficult to get deep into that corner, not overshoot the corner and not wheel-hop the rear tires."
    Another tough part of the track, suddenly it seems, is the short stretch between turn one (a hard right-hander) over to the uphill esses. That's what drivers have to go from two or three-wide down to single-file. And in Saturday's Nationwide race that caused a huge crash.
   "Sonoma is such a tight, finesse track that we could run side-by-side for the first five or six corners," Gordon says.  "With the esses here, you have to get single-file pretty quick."

  Jeff Gordon: He's won more road races than any of these guys, but he's been snakebit this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Out of the esses, and down the backstretch to the 'bus stop' chicane, it's pretty much single-file...though drivers will try to test each other going into that chicane.
   Out of the chicane the track gets twisty and drivers typically do some hard banging.
   "Once you get through the bus stop, I think you're going to see plenty of excitement," Gordon says.
    "It just seems like there are always a lot of guys getting knocked around in those first couple corners."
   McMurray and Montoya tested for this event last week at Road Atlanta. "And we changed a little of our brake package from Sonoma," McMurray says. "And I think Juan changed a few suspension parts. 
    "I'm pretty sure our cars are not identical.
    "We didn't feel we had very good cars at Sonoma. So qualifying second and third here shows they've made our cars quite a bit better."
    But all that could go for nought if the race turns on fuel mileage and pit stop strategy, as it frequently does.
   "It's about just having the right pit strategy," McMurray concedes.
   And that – this weekend at least – doesn't include those two-tire vs four-tire gambles that won and lost Indianapolis and Pocono.
   "I don't think you're going to see people put tires on late in the race and make much ground up," McMurray says. "It's going to be about having good fuel mileage...and then having track position. 
    "If you can be in the first four or six, you will be in good shape in turn one, through the esses and all that. 
    "It seems when you're back 10th or 12th,  that's where all the stuff happens."
     Montoya, for being a Formula 1 star, hasn't really shown that much on NASCAR road courses. Can he make something happen here?
   "We always suck in Sonoma and we run good here," Montoya says. "We did a lot of testing (before Sonoma), and we made it a lot better...(but) by the time we got to Sonoma, we still sucked. 
    "We come here and we run what we run...and it's good, I guess."
   But good enough?

      The starting lineup for Sunday's 220-mile Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen


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  Boris Said figures this is his best shot yet at winning a Cup race (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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