Analysis: Why starring at Sonoma is no guarantee at The Glen

The form guide suggests Kyle Busch and AJ Allmendinger should be the top dogs at Watkins Glen this weekend – and here's why...

Analysis: Why starring at Sonoma is no guarantee at The Glen
Start: Marcos Ambrose, Ford leads
A.J. Allmendinger, Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, Marcos Ambrose, Petty Motorsport Ford
Kevin Harvick passes Tony Stewart for the lead
Kevin Harvick
Marcos Ambrose, Petty Motorsport Ford
Race winner: Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford
Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Kyle Busch
Race winner Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Juan Pablo Montoya, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Juan Pablo Montoya, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
A.J. Allmendinger, Richard Petty Motorsports Dodge
A.J. Allmendinger, JTG Daugherty Racing Chevolet and Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
A.J. Allmendinger, JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet
Race winner A.J. Allmendinger, JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet
Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing Ford
Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet and Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Regan Smith, Stewart-Haas Chevrolet
Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Chase Elliott
Chris Buescher

Many assume that Sonoma and Watkins Glen are the most similar pairing of tracks on the Cup schedule – simply by virtue of having right turns.

But while both have been a happy stomping ground for road course ringers and specialists in the past, their respective outcomes diverged significantly in recent years.

Sonoma has produced quite a few different winners in the past decade, many of which you would not consider road course specialists.

Meanwhile, the outcomes of events at Watkins Glen have been a lot more par for the course. Save for Kevin Harvick's 2006 triumph and Joey Logano's fuel mileage win last year, the winners were exactly who you'd expect to be in contention.

And while there have been fairly recent double wins at Sonoma and Glen – Robby Gordon in 2003, Tony Stewart in 2005 and Kyle Busch in 2008 – there has been virtually no overlap between top performers at the two venues in the past five years.

Top 10 driver ratings at Sonoma/Watkins Glen (2011-2015)

Sonoma Watkins Glen
Yr. Driver Fin. Laps Led Rating Yr. Driver Fin. Laps Led Rating
2013 Truex 1 51/110 144 2013 Kyle Busch 1 29/90 138.2
2012 Bowyer 1 71/112 142.8 2011 Kyle Busch 3 49/92 134.9
2011 Kurt Busch 1 76/110 142.6 2012 Kyle Busch 7 43/90 133.7
2015 Kurt Busch 2 43/110 137.7 2015 Harvick 3 29/90 132.7
2014 McMurray 4 9/110 126 2011 Ambrose 1 21/92 132.2
2015 Johnson 6 45/110 123.5 2014 Ambrose 2 19/90 130.9
2012 Kurt Busch 3 2/112 120.3 2014 Allmendinger 1 30/90 129.9
2014 Edwards 1 26/110 119.9 2012 Keselowski 2 37/90 129.1
2014 Gordon 2 3/110 119.1 2012 Ambrose 1 8/90 128.5
2015 Kyle Busch 1 17/110 118.2 2015 Kyle Busch 2 3/90 124

Look at the top 10 runs by driver rating on the two tracks between 2011 and 2015 and you get lists that are nothing alike. Only Kyle Busch makes both lists, and his preposterously good form at the Glen doesn't exactly translate into the same level of success at Sonoma.

Part of that is because Watkins Glen has been a much better track for NASCAR's leading road course converts. Marcos Ambore has only been there or thereabout at Sonoma, but a consistent threat for victory at Watkins Glen – and the trend looks likely to repeat for AJ Allmendinger.

Even for Juan Pablo Montoya, who won once at both, there was a clear difference. His 2007 Sonoma win was fuel mileage, while his 2010 Glen win was brutal dominance, with 74 laps led of 90.

Form guide

With Ambrose having left the Cup, Kyle Busch is now almost certainly the best driver at Watkins Glen among the current Cup field, his recent record tarnished only by a disastrous run in 2014.

Given everything that's happened in the championship over the past year or so, Busch is probably the favorite for victory this time, although much of the attention will be surely drawn to a different likely contender – Allmendinger.

The two road courses were always going to be big dates for the former Champ Car race winner, but he's run infinitely better at the Glen than at Sonoma. And seeing how a spot in the Chase on points is on the cusp of being a mathematical impossibility for the #47 team, this Glen race is almost certainly going to decide whether Allmendinger makes the play-offs.

Notable five-year driver rating averages at Watkins Glen

Driver Glen Other tracks Difference Glen Max. Glen Min.
AJ Allmendinger 106.0 71.1 +34.9 129.9 93.9
Kyle Busch 119.2 99.9 +19.3 138.2 65.0
Brad Keselowski 108.6 96.8 +11.8 129.1 76.6
Martin Truex, Jr. 99.6 87.9 +11.7 117.6 74.7
Casey Mears 66.6 56.6 +10.0 76.0 55.6
Tony Stewart 89.0 80.5 +8.6 96.2 81.5
Clint Bowyer 93.6 87.0 +6.6 109.5 71.5
Carl Edwards 95.3 90.7 +4.6 99.2 85.1
Joey Logano 93.0 91.7 +1.4 118.2 62.5
Danica Patrick 56.8 58.8 -2.0 64.7 51.7
Jamie McMurray 77.1 79.9 -2.8 96.0 59.3
Kurt Busch 85.7 89.6 -3.9 117.2 51.9
Kevin Harvick 97.0 101.6 -4.6 132.7 85.1
Greg Biffle 76.8 83.0 -6.3 89.5 60.9
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 87.6 94.7 -7.1 104.9 71.6
Jimmie Johnson 96.5 103.6 -7.1 111.3 81.4
Ryan Newman 74.4 84.2 -9.8 79.5 69.0
Matt Kenseth 88.9 100.7 -11.8 102.5 79.6
Jeff Gordon 80.4 98.4 -18.0 114.8 31.5
Kasey Kahne 72.5 91.0 -18.6 84.4 45.2
Denny Hamlin 68.9 92.5 -23.6 74.9 61.6

Aside from Busch, the drivers who are most likely to rain on Allmendinger's parade are Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, five-time Glen winner Tony Stewart and Martin Truex. The latter is probably the one who should worry the rest of the field the most – Truex has been consistently good at the Glen for many different teams in the past and, as such, 2016-spec Truex could simply run away with the race.

And watch out for Logano, who, after all, did sweep last year's weekend, beating Keselowski to the Xfinity honours before his fuel mileage triumph in the Cup.

Chase bubble

The main outcome of this year's Watkins Glen race for drivers currently between P12 and P19 in the championship is probably going to be whether or not Allmendinger wins and steals another precious spot in the play-offs.

The most experienced drivers in the points fight – Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray – should probably look to focus on banking a solid finish, as neither has had any recent headline results at the Glen.

As for the newer drivers, there's little data to rely on, although Kyle Larson's P4 on debut in 2014 is an eye-catcher and Chase Elliott's Glen form in Xfinity looks promising, too.

As for whether Chris Buescher can make up the six points to David Ragan that he needs to become Chase-eligible, the newest Cup winner's third place in Xfinity last year – behind Logano and Keselowski – suggests he'll stand a decent chance.

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