Cheez-It 355 – Watkins Glen International

Capacity: 38,900
Length: 2.45 Miles
Turns: 7

Watkins Glen International is one of only two road courses in the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, with the second being Sonoma Raceway (formerly Sears Point) which was run in June. Of the two, ‘The Glen’ is faster-paced and more exciting than its California counterpart, with comparisons to that of a short track. With flat, subtle hills and three long straightaways, cars reach speeds up to 120mph only to brake hard for the tight left and right esses and the tricky inner and outer loops.

This year, The Glen was repaved and one driver from every organization was invited to test on the new surface. Brad Keselowski suffered brake issues during testing and this photo above was the result. Despite such a crash, Keselowski qualified 12th for the Cheez-It 355.

Under a bright blue sky with a packed infield of campers and sold-out grandstands, pole winner Carl Edwards led the field to green. Edwards was able to hold the lead until his first pit stop on Lap 26 where he was penalized for a tire violation and had to serve a pass-through. Jeff Gordon, driving Dale Earnhardt Jr’ Axalta 88 car, celebrated his 800th career start but incurred damage early while traversing the inner loop known as the bus stop.  Austin Dillon checked up causing Gordon to get into the back of him; the damage to the left-front then caused Gordon to pit and subsequently fall back through the field.

The lead was eventually handed to Joey Logano who pushed on fuel for three laps outside of the fuel window.  When he finally pitted, Danica Patrick took the lead with Kyle Busch running hard in second place.  Patrick performs well at road courses and it showed as she dominated for 12 solid laps before heading to pit road. So far this year, she has led 26 laps in total and has 8 Top-20 finishes.

The race was fairly calm for the first half of the race with only two cautions – the first for debris on the track and the second for Edwards’ uncontrolled tire on pit road. There was nothing but clean racing and smooth passing up until Lap 53 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got loose coming out of the carousel and slid across the track into the guardrail. When he bounced back across the track, he was T-boned by Jimmie Johnson. As Austin Dillon was swerving to avoid them, he got into Greg Biffle and sent Biffle into the guardrail. The race was red flagged as the track was cleared.

The restart almost immediately saw Ryan Newman get loose and turn David Ragan around.  The wreck also collected Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, and Alex Kennedy before bringing out the fourth caution of the day.  Nineteen laps later, Kennedy brought out the sixth caution after losing an engine on the front stretch. Luckily, the incident didn’t affect other drivers.

The race restarted with only ten laps remaining. While battling it out for first place, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch both overshot Turn 1 and went into the runoff area. Denny Hamlin quickly assumed the lead just as the seventh caution flag of the day waved for Newman and Matt DiBenedetto who spun each other at the bottom of the esses.

The final caution quickly became the second red flag of the day when last week’s Pocono winner, Chris Buescher, began trailing smoke. Paul Menard slowed down due to impaired vision as did Kevin Harvick, who was then hit and turned by Brian Scott and David Ragan right behind. After a long red flag, the race resumed with just 4 laps to go.

The final laps were nail-biters for fans as the top twenty drivers battled for a better position. Coming to the finish line, second place driver Martin Truex Jr. tried to get a run on Hamlin as they came out of the bus stop but got turned into the wall by Keselowski who tried to make a move for the outside. Simultaneously, the fourth and fifth place drivers, Kyle Larson and AJ Allmendinger respectively, tangled in the same manner, with Allmendinger turning Larson into the wall at the entrance to pit road.

Amidst the bedlam, Hamlin crossed the finish line just 2+ seconds ahead of Joey Logano, who had won the Xfinity race the day prior.  Later Logano stated, “Typical Watkins Glen. I mean, it’s just awesome, crazy racing, full contact. Just insane out there.”

Indeed it was, but it wasn’t over quite yet because, on the cool down lap, Truex Jr expressed his extreme frustration by driving hard into Keselowski… more than once.  Despite the tension, the men avoided a scene on pit road when Keselowski acknowledged blame. “That was my fault. All in all, just one of those Watkins Glen crazy days,” he said post-race. “I went high, and the 78 went high, and by then I was already deep in the corner and got into him and turned him.  That was really unfortunate, and the last thing I wanted to see.” Also in a post-race interview, Truex confirmed his frustration but ultimately remarked that it was all part of ‘hard racing’.

Despite starting the day with back spasms that caused Denny Hamlin to question whether he was fit for the race, he went on to do a spectacular burnout that utterly shredded the tires. The car wasn’t able to drive into Victory Lane so Denny walked there to score his first road course win in his career and his second win this season – the first being the Daytona 500 which kicked off the 2016 season back in February.


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