Though trips to short tracks at Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway remain before the field is set for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, the last four races of the "regular season" are largely straight-forward venues.
That makes this Sunday's Finger Lakes 335 at Watkins Glen International a pivotal race for teams looking to improve their Chase position and those looking to salvage a shot at picking up one of the Wild Card positions so they can make a run at the title this fall.
While Watkins Glen isn't quite as treacherous as the other road course at Sonoma - the track is faster, meaning the field spreads out more and there is less bumping and gouging - the fact remains that if your car gets turned around pointing the wrong way, you will lose a ton of positions. Likely, given the nature of road racing, a spin would result in a local caution flag rather than one that put the full course under yellow conditions, so recovering the lost positions would be made that much harder on a track where opportunities to pass are already few and far between.
Tony Stewart would be a prime example of how things can change in a hurry at The Glen. He entered the final lap of last year's race solidly inside the top-10, heading for a result that should have taken the drama out of his bid to make the Chase. NASCAR did not throw the caution flag for a horrendous accident in the second turn between David Reutimann and David Ragan, meaning the race continued to the backstretch interloop. Stewart was spun there and wound up stuck against the wall as the rest of the lead lap cars passed by. Half a lap from a sure top-10 finish before the spin, he ended up 27th.
Stewart of course made the Chase and went on a five-for-ten romp to claim his third championship, but the odds are against that kind of history repeating itself. Until a driver crosses the finish line to end the race, his position could be in the same jeopardy Stewart's was last year.
To illustrate that point, Jeff Gordon was running fourth exiting the last turn in 2003 when his Chevrolet ran out of fuel. Kevin Harvick hit Gordon from behind, sending him spinning across the track into the wall. He dropped all the way to 33rd in the final running order as a result.
Don't be surprised if, when the checkered flag falls over the Richmond event, it turns out that some late-race disaster similar to Stewart and Gordon's incidents ends up costing someone a shot to compete in the Chase.