When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competes at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International, strategy becomes a more integral part of the race compared to oval events.
Unlike most venues, drivers can pit under green flag conditions without losing a lap, and the timing of these stops becomes critical to determining which cars ultimately battle for the trophy.
The addition of stage racing in 2017 further emphasizes the importance of strategy. Much like at Sonoma in June, teams will enter Sunday’s I LOVE NEW YORK 355 at the Glen prepared with game plans crafted towards either succeeding in the first two stages or overall event.
Sonoma featured a distinct divide between those who performed and finished well in each stage compared to how the end of the race unfolded.
Kevin Harvick took the victory but didn’t place inside the top-10 in the first two stages. Despite this, he led the second-most laps and pulled away to his first win of the season.
Clint Bowyer only completed Stage 1 in the top-10 but triumphed at the end to earn his second runner-up of 2017.
Brad Keselowski finished third after pitting late in Stage 1, staying out for Stage 2, and gaining crucial track position that put him up front for the rest of the event.
Similar storylines will likely emerge out of Watkins Glen.
With five races until the Playoffs begin, drivers on the bubble without a win will need every point to assure their opportunity to compete for the championship.
They will have to balance chasing victory while not giving up many stage points as they develop a strategy for Sunday. Seeing how much Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, and Matt Kenseth gain will help further piece together the post-season picture.
However, those three competitors will need to keep an eye on drivers who are in a must-win situation to climb into the top-16.
Road courses often even the playing field and typically don’t favor the best-performing cars of the season, opening the door for drivers on the outside of the title picture, including previous Watkins Glen winners Joey Logano and A.J. Allmendinger.
Seeing whether those who have to win to secure a Playoff spot or a past winner this season prevails adds another compelling storyline to an already highly anticipated event.
Watkins Glen has produced many memorable moments in recent years including epic last lap battles that pitted experienced road racers Marcos Ambrose and Allmendinger against the best of the sport with Kyle Busch, Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin, delivering thrilling finishes.
Producing more dramatic moments is a major goal of stage racing. By introducing this style of competition to the always exciting road course, it can only enhance one of the wildest events of the season.
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