Ambrose, Montoya lead top options at Watkins Glen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( Mark Garrow / Jayski.com ) -- One week after he flipped his winged sprint car seven times in Canada, Tony Stewart wrecked again Monday night at Southern Iowa Speedway, only this time he didn't walk away. As most of you know, the 42-year-old driver broke his right leg in two places, with two surgeries needed to repair the fractured tibia and fibula.
The former two-time Sprint Cup champion has already chosen former Formula One and Indy Car competitor Max Papis (14.9) to drive the No. 14 Chevrolet this Sunday at Watkins Glen.
Papis has run 35 Sprint Cup races, but none since 2010, when he drove for Germaine Racing, which now employs Casey Mears. That year, Papis crashed and finished 43rd at Sonoma and came home 22nd at Watkins Glen. In 2009, though, he finished 12th at Sonoma and eighth at Watkins Glen, his career best to this point. On the Nationwide Series, "Mad Max," as he was known when he drove the open-wheel cars, has run 13 events, primarily on road courses. In three Nationwide Series starts his best finish at the Glen was 11th back in 2008. He's run two races this year for Richard Childress, finishing 37th at Iowa and 17th at Road America.
Taking Stewart off your Watkins Glen team is really going to hurt since he's a five-time winner in upstate New York and has six top-two finishes in his past nine attempts on the 11-turn, 2.45-mile layout. If not for this accident, "Smoke" would have risen to No. 2 in my prerace rankings.
My top pick, however, isn't about to change and that's Marcos Ambrose (18.0). The "Tazmanian Devil" has put up some hellish numbers at Watkins Glen. In his first appearance in 2008, Ambrose finished third. He followed that up with second- and third-place finishes before locking down back to back-to-back wins in 2011 and '12. In five races, he's averaging a second-place finish, and if he qualifies top-5 again watch out.
With Stewart out of the picture, it was a little bit of a struggle to figure out who I wanted second in the rankings, but I finally settled on Juan Pablo Montoya (17.5), figuring last year's 33rd-place finish was the exception, not the rule for the Colombian driver when it came to the Glen. After all, from 2008 to 2011, Montoya had finished fourth, sixth, first and seventh, and I think he can regain that form this weekend.
Among the top valued drivers in the ESPN Stock Car Challenge, I also like Brad Keselowski (22.1) a lot since he's been the runner-up the past two years. Clint Bowyer (22.6) surprisingly flies a little below the radar when it comes to road racing. He won at Sonoma last year and was fifth there earlier this year, while at the Glen, he was fourth last year with three top-11 finishes in his past four races. I'm also a big fan of Kyle Busch (22.3), the 2008 winner with seven consecutive finishes of ninth or better. Greg Biffle (21.0) should get, at least, a little respect after finishing sixth last August.
In this group of top drivers, Jeff Gordon (21.4) might be the toughest to figure out. On one hand, he's a four-time Watkins Glen winner. On the other, the last trip to Victory Lane was in 2001 and he's been top-10 just twice in the past 11 races. Gordon has no breathing space whatsoever when it comes to making the Chase and needs to come up big Sunday. My gut is telling me everything is in place for Gordon to launch a successful sneak attack.
With no Stewart, the top midlevel driver is Kurt Busch (20.1), a top-six finisher in four of the past six races, and in one of the events he didn't fare that well, he still led 102 laps at Loudon. He also tested at the Glen, where he was the runner-up in 2009, and finished fourth at Sonoma back in June. Martin Truex Jr. (20.2) should get a little love after coming home 10th last year with three top-10s and only one finish outside the top 15 in his past six Watkins Glen starts. Another possibility is Joey Logano (20.1), who has been top-10 the past two weeks and was fifth in this race back in 2011.
The hardest to get a handle on this range is the red-hot Ryan Newman (19.6). In the past two weeks, he's won at the Brickyard and finished fourth at Pocono. If we were going to an oval track, I'd be praising his name without hesitation. At Watkins Glen, however, he's finished just 12th, 16th and 11th in the past three seasons. Given Newman's level of confidence right now, putting up a low number is a possibility Sunday.
Among the low-budget picks, Montoya is my top choice, but I also like Brian Vickers (16.6). He's been very strong at Sonoma the past two years as he shares the No. 55 with Mark Martin. The record book will show he finished dead last in 43rd at the Glen in 2012, but it won't tell you he was a bullet in practice. However, his engine let go seconds after he took the green flag so Vickers didn't get a chance to complete even one lap. AJ Allmendinger (15.0) is behind the wheel of the No. 47 normally driven by Bobby Labonte. The 'Dinger didn't race at the Glen last year because of his suspension, but in the four previous seasons finished 11th, 13th, fourth and eighth. He also tested with this team for this weekend's event, which will make him all the tougher.
Among the road racing specialists, we've already told you about Papis. Ron Fellows (13.9) is driving for Joe Falk this weekend, but the car, chassis and engine come from RCR. He was 22nd at Sonoma and should be better at the Glen, where he's won three Nationwide Series races and was the runner-up in the 2001 Cup event. Fellows has finished 40th and 30th the past two years but was driving for the underfunded Tommy Baldwin Racing. The last time he was in a good car at the Glen was 2008 and he finished 13th for Dale Earnhardt Inc. For all the talk about Boris Said (13.8), he's been top-10 in only two of 12 starts. In June at Sonoma, though, he was 18th driving the No. 32 for Frank Stoddard. Then, there's Owen Kelly (13.8), another Australian, who, like Ambrose, has a lot of road racing experience on the V8 Supercar Series. Kelly has run two Nationwide Series races, both on road courses. In 2010, he finished fifth at Road America and came home fourth there earlier this year driving Kyle Busch's car for Joe Gibbs Racing.