For NASCAR teams and officials, it’s not too early to start thinking about 2011

Marcos Ambrose would have been a compelling story this weekend regardless. He’s won two straight Nationwide series races at the Watkins Glen road course. He had the best finish of his Cup career, second, at the Glen a year ago. He also had a heartbreaking giveaway of a likely victory at the Infineon road course in June. But Ambrose is even more newsworthy in the wake of his announcement last week that he’s leaving the JTG Daugherty Racingteam at the end of the season. The announcement was a reminder that, while the cream of the Sprint Cup crop is focused on the impending Chase, other major players in the sport are already contemplating life beyond the season finale. Here are some of the loudest rumblings as NASCAR enters its dog days.

 

Silly season

Ambrose, who is from Tasmania, was vague about his plans for 2011. “I would like to continue in NASCAR and finish off what I started, but I have not discounted returning to Australia,” he said. If Ambrose stays in NASCAR, a logical destination would be Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM), which will lose at least one driver at year’s end. Kasey Kahne announced in April that he’s leaving RPM after the season and will join Hendrick in 2012 (his plans for 2011 remain uncertain). It’s also unclear how committed RPM’s three remaining drivers, Elliott Sadler, A.J. Allmendinger and Paul Menard, are to the organization.

JTG Daugherty Racing was much more definitive in announcing Ambrose’s  replacement in the No. 47 for 2011: Bobby Labonte. Labonte, the 2000 Cup champ, has already driven for three teams this season.

 

Schedule changes

While he declined to offer specifics, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France confirmed at a recent press conference that the Sprint Cup schedule will look considerably different in 2011. “Everybody has a slice of the pie that they want to make sure fits them perfectly,” France said. “We’ve had to adjust that around where it fits everyone in the industry. That’s gone fairly well.”

Translation: Compiling the Cup schedule is a highly political process. Some tracks with one race date want to add another; tracks that already have two want to keep both. And some tracks with no dates want in.

To further complicate the equation, 12 of the 22 current Cup tracks are owned by International Speedway Corporation, which like NASCAR itself was launched by the France family, and seven are owned by O. Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc., which often butts heads with NASCAR. (The three remaining tracks are independent.) To avoid conflict-of-interest charges, NASCAR has decreed that each ownership group can shuffle dates only within its own group. In other words, NASCAR can’t move a date from Charlotte, a SMI track, to Daytona, an ISC track, or vice versa.

The most likely candidate to gain a second race among the ISC tracks is Kansas Speedway. Kansas’ gain likely would be Auto Club Speedway’s loss. The Fontana, California track has struggled with attendance since it received a second date in 2004.

There are at least two potential shifts among the SMI group: Las Vegas would like a second date, and Kentucky Speedway would like its first. One of those dates likely would come from Atlanta, which has had attendance woes for years. The second loser is harder to predict. Although New Hampshire Motor Speedway has traditionally enjoyed good attendance for both of its Cup dates, the speedway has recently clashed with the town of Loudon over police services. That led the combustible Mr. Smith to threaten to take his business elsewhere.

Regardless, the big winner in the SMI scenario would be Kentucky. The track, which opened in 2000, has considered a Cup date so important to its future that it once sued NASCAR for alleged antitrust violations. (That was before SMI acquired it; the suit has since been dropped.)

For a stark illustration of what a Cup date can be worth, like no further than Gateway International Raceway, just outside St. Louis. Gateway, which has held both NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck series races since 1998 but has never landed a Sprint Cup event, has announced that it will hold no NASCAR races in 2011 due to financial troubles.

 

Changes to the Chase

Besides shuffling which tracks get races, NASCAR might also alter when those races run. Rotating the tracks that receive Chase dates is one of several changes under consideration to liven up the championship format. “Whatever we do,” said France, “it will be with the industry having lots of chances to weigh in, and us in the end thinking this is something that we can build around that enhances winning, enhances the championship, gives us more of a playoff feel than we currently have now.”

 

 

 

ONE TO WATCH: Tony Stewart

WHY HE MATTERS: He’s the Glen’s all-time leader in Cup wins, with five.

WHAT HE SAYS: “We’re definitely making gains.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: He’s climbed from 18th to eighth in points, thanks to eight top-10s in his past 10 starts.

 

NEXT RACE Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips at The Glen, Watkins Glen International

THE LOWDOWN This time of year favors finesse drivers. The flat, sweeping turns of Indianapolis, followed by the triangular Pocono “roval” (road course/oval), and now an actual road course at Watkins Glen. Look for Tony Stewart (fifth at Indy, second at Pocono), Kevin Harvick (second at Indy, fourth at Pocono) and Carl Edwards (seventh at Indy, third at Pocono) to keep the momentum going at the Glen. Will the wheels come off for Greg Biffle, who followed up his third at the Brickyard with a win at Pocono but tends to struggle on road courses?

 

PAST WINNERS

2009 Tony Stewart

2008      Kyle Busch

2007      Tony Stewart

2006      Kevin Harvick

2005      Tony Stewart

 

ABOUT Watkins Glen

TRACK: Watkins Glen International (Watkins Glen, N.Y.), 2.45-mile, 11-turn paved road course

RACE LENGTH: 90 laps, 220.5 miles

FIRST RACE: 1957

SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup

 

Quote of note

“This one's for Jack!” – Pocono winner Greg Biffle, whose car owner, Jack Roush, recently suffered serious facial injuries in a plane crash.

 

Where to watch

Sunday’s pre-race show on ESPN starts at noon EDT, followed by the race at 1:00.

 

UP TO SPEED

On course or off?

With just five races remaining until the Chase, the effect of an especially good (or bad) finish is magnified. Watkins Glen traditionally provides plenty of both for Chase contenders. Based on past performance, it’s a good chance for eighth-place Tony Stewart to get his first win, for Mark Martin to crack the top 12, and for both Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards to further secure their Chase berths (see chart). It could also spell big trouble for Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

 

Safety squeeze
Pocono, which had already come under scrutiny after Kasey Kahne’s scary back-stretch crash in June, did nothing to enhance its reputation last Sunday. In one violent multi-car wreck, the right-front wheel was torn from Kurt Busch’s car and the engine came completely out of Elliott Sadler’s car after both cars slid through the bumpy infield grass into antiquated guardrails. Both drivers were OK after what Sadler called the hardest hit he ever took. With Sprint Cup dates at a premium, look for Pocono to make some upgrades before 2011 in order to protect its place on the schedule.

 

Milestones

Biffle’s Pocono victory was the first win of the year for Ford and Roush-Fenway Racing.

 

WEEKLY STATS

HOW THE TOP 20 RUN AT THE GLEN

 

POINTS RANK      DRIVER            AVG. GLEN  FINISH           

1                  Kevin Harvick            13.9     

2                  Jeff Gordon                  14.8     

3                  Denny Hamlin            7.5     

4                  Jimmie Johnson            13.0     

5                  Jeff Burton                  22.1

6                   Kyle Busch                  10.8     

7                  Kurt Busch                  19.8     

8                   Tony Stewart            5.3     

9                  Matt Kenseth            16.0

10                  Carl Edwards            8.8     

11                  Greg Biffle                  25.3     

12                  Clint Bowyer            15.5

13                  Mark Martin                  7.8     

14                  Dale Earnhardt Jr.            22.6

15                  Ryan Newman            16.9

16                  Kasey Kahne            18.3     

17                  Jamie McMurray            20.1     

18                  David Reutimann            29.0     

19                  Joey Logano            16.0       

20                  Martin Truex Jr.            16.8