Here it is — the annual NASCAR race weekend at Watkins Glen International has arrived once again.
And while haulers continue to move in throughout the day today, the race weekend begins in earnest with a pair of Xfinity Series practice sessions leading up to Saturday’s Zippo 200 at the Glen.
But what should you look for this weekend? Here’s a look at some of the big storylines to follow.
K&N PRO SERIES EAST
Bully Hill Vineyards 100
Schedule of events: Final practice, Friday at 8:30 a.m.; Qualifying, Friday at 2 p.m.; Race, Friday at 6:15 p.m.
TV: No live TV; NBCSN will air on tape delay Thursday, Aug. 25 at 7 p.m.
What to watch for
No repeat champion: Scott Heckert won the last two K&N Pro Series East races at the Glen but he’s not entered in this year’s race. However, the team he drove for — HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks — will be well represented with points leader Justin Haley in the No. 5 Chevy, Harrison Burton in the No. 12, Hunter Baize in the No. 13 and Cole Custer in the No. 98 Chevy
New faces, familiar names: Harrison Burton is the son of NASCAR veteran and NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton and his uncle is 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton. Austin Cindric, who won his lone K&N start at Virginia International Raceway, is the son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric. Finally, Cole Custer is the son of Haas F1 chief operating officer and longtime Stewart-Haas Racing executive Joe Custer.
Crunch time in the title hunt: After Friday night’s race there’s just three events on the 2016 K&N Pro Series East schedule and with no Chase at the regional level, it seems to be a two-man race between Haley and Kyle Benjamin, who trails Haley by 32 points. Last year, Haley finished third to stay in the title hunt while Benjamin ended up 14th and effectively fell out of contention.
Zippo 200 at The Glen
Schedule of events: First practice, today at 1 p.m.; second practice, today at 3:30 p.m.; final practice, Friday at 10 a.m.; qualifying, Friday at 4:45 p.m.; race, Saturday at 2 p.m.
TV: Today’s events will not be televised. However, final practice and qualifying will air on NBCSN Friday and the race Saturday on CNBC.
What to watch for
Cup driver domination: If you’re a betting man, bet against an Xfinity regular winning this race. The last time an Xfinity regular won this race was 2008 when Marcos Ambrose rattled off the first of three straight wins in the Saturday affair. Before then? Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1999. Last year, the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski dominated the show with a 1-2 finish. Six Cup drivers are entered in Saturday’s race: Paul Menard, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Trevor Bayne.
Strong season by Joe Gibbs Racing: The 2016 Xfinity Series season has been Joe Gibbs Racing’s world and we’re all just living in it. Gibbs has won 13 of 19 races thus far with Kyle Busch leading the tour with seven wins. Busch has generally dominated the races he’s entered this season and there’s no reason to think such a blowout wouldn’t happen Saturday at the Glen. Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez have also been strong for most of the season with Jones scoring his third win of the season at Iowa Speedway last weekend.
The race to the Xfinity Chase: There are just seven races to go before the inaugural Xfinity Chase begins Sept. 24 at Kentucky Speedway. At this point, just three Xfinity regulars (Jones, Suarez and points leader Elliott Sadler) have won meaning that with nine spots still up for grabs a victory would lock a team into the seven-race playoff. Ty Dillon, Justin Allgaier, Brendan Gaughan, Brennan Poole, Brandon Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Ryan Reed have built comfortable points cushions. However, 11th-place Ryan Sieg (39 points ahead of 13th-place Jeremy Clements) and 12th-place Blake Koch (24 ahead of Clements) would like a solid day to improve their Chase chances.
SPRINT CUP SERIES
Cheez-It 355 at the Glen
Schedule of events: First practice, Friday at 12:30 p.m.; Final practice, Friday at 3 p.m.; Qualifying, Saturday at 12:15 p.m.; race, Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
TV: NBCSN will have Friday coverage, CNBC will air qualifying and the race will be broadcast on USA
What to watch for
Jeff Gordon makes his 800th start: The NASCAR legend will reach the start milestone under the worst of circumstances as the FOX Sports analyst continues to fill in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. who is still battling concussion symptoms. It’s not out of the picture that Gordon can help turn around what’s been a mostly mediocre season for Hendrick Motorsports with a win — he’s won at the Glen four times.
“Smoke” says goodbye: This farewell might be a little more permanent as Tony Stewart will handle Watkins Glen International for the final time in his storied career. Stewart will be gunning for the road course sweep Sunday after outdueling Denny Hamlin at Sonoma in June. “Smoke” could score his sixth win at the Glen this weekend, an unprecedented feat.
Buescher’s upset bid begins: When the fog and rain arrived to Pocono Raceway Monday afternoon it was rookie and defending Xfinity Series champion Chris Buescher who stunned the racing world with his first career Sprint Cup win. Now Buescher has to race his way into the top 30 in series points as he trails 30th place David Ragan by six markers. If the young Texan were to race his way into the Chase, a major wrench would be thrown into things.
Last chance for Allmendinger?: Speaking of wrenches being thrown into things, AJ Allmendinger will attempt to play spoiler once again with a win at Watkins Glen. The driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota is currently 21st in points, 59 points behind the current bubble driver Kyle Larson. Allmendinger was in the same spot last year before winding up in 24th due to a myriad of issues.