Top 10: The best of wild, wonderful Watkins Glen
August 06, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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Tight corners, fast straightaways, heightened tensions and frayed nerves. Welcome to Watkins Glen International, the road course that drives like a superspeedway, and a layout which often leaves drivers fuming -- or even feuding -- in its wake.
It's been that way ever since 1986, when NASCAR returned to the upstate New York track and created a race that has become a summertime staple on the shores of Seneca Lake. Those blue guardrails, that nefarious first corner, and drivers stuck in the kitty litter -- sometimes blaming one another -- have become part of NASCAR lore. And then there's the setting, a historic hilltop facility that's hosted virtually every major series in the world of motorsports at one time or another, which only adds to the atmosphere.
Indeed, despite its relatively short time on the NASCAR schedule, Watkins Glen has seen a little bit of everything. Last season, when Kyle Busch overcame a spate of wrecks, a few late restarts and a hard-charging Brad Keselowski to prevail at the finish, was no different. There will undoubtedly be more memorable moments created Sunday, when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns once again to this speedway masquerading as a road course. Until then, here are the top 10.
10. A first and a fight: 2000
It was a perfect storyline -- Steve Park, a native of Long Island, earning his first victory in NASCAR's premier series at a track in his home state. Driving for Dale Earnhardt, Park dominated the race but needed to hold off Mark Martin at the end. And yet Park's victory was somewhat overshadowed by shenanigans in the garage area, where Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon hurled four-letter accusations at one another after making contact earlier in the race. "I owe you one now, buddy," an angry Gordon declared as he was restrained by crewmen, including a young Steve Letarte. Gordon would settle things the next year by winning the race.
9. NASCAR's return: 1986
The world's foremost stock-car circuit first came to Watkins Glen in 1957, just one year after the course opened, and Buck Baker won the inaugural race. It returned after a six-year hiatus, with Billy Wade and Marvin Panch winning in successive seasons before the departing again, this time for 20 years. But it returned in a big way in 1986, when road-course ace Tim Richmond earned what would prove his lone victory at the New York track. Richmond led the final 12 laps to hold off Darrell Waltrip, and NASCAR found a permanent foothold in the Finger Lakes region which endures to this day.
8. Ringers can wait: 1999
Road-course ringers may have descended on NASCAR events in force throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, but specialists haven't scored a victory at the sport's top level since Mark Donohue scored the first triumph for Roger Penske at Riverside in 1972. But one certainly had a chance at Watkins Glen in 1999, when Canadian road-race ace Ron Fellows lined up second behind Gordon on the final restart with two laps remaining. But this was back in the day when Jeff Gordon was unstoppable on road courses, and the reigning series champ jumped out to a big lead off the restart and went on to win. The ringers, meanwhile, still wait.
7. 'Little scaredy cat': 2011
Boris Said is a nice guy who has taught dozens of NASCAR drivers how to road race, even at the expense of his own career. But after a rain-postponed Monday race in 2011, he was enraged at Greg Biffle, and he wasn't afraid to say it. "He's the most unprofessional little scaredy cat I've ever seen in my life," he told ESPN after confronting Biffle in the garage. "Somebody text me his address. I'll go see him at his house ... and show him what he really needs. He needs a frigging whooping, and I'm going to give it to him." Marcos Ambrose won that day to record his first victory at the sport's top level, but once again the focus was in the garage.
6. Into the wall: 2000
We can laugh about it now, because the driver involved not only walked away, but went on to win six championships (and counting) at NASCAR's highest level. But at the time, it was pretty harrowing -- Jimmie Johnson's car in what's now the NASCAR Nationwide Series losing its brakes off a corner, bounding into the air, and skidding along the grass at nearly full speed. It slammed head-on into a barrier coated with large blocks of protective foam. Johnson emerged, stood on top of the car, and raised his arms in triumph and relief. Later, he bought a few pieces of that foam and the car, which he restored and has sitting in his garage.
5. Montoya vs. Ambrose: 2010
Now, this was a battle of heavyweights: former Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya and former V8 Supercar driver Ambrose, the two foremost road-racing transplants of their day, going at it for the lead midway through the 2010 event. Ambrose tried again and again to get by, Montoya again and again shut the door. Ambrose finally muscled past, but he couldn't hold on -- he suffered a long pit stop, then radioed he had a flat tire, and ended up third while Montoya claimed his second victory at NASCAR's top level. But while it lasted, the duel between the two world-class road racers was a good as Watkins Glen can deliver.
4. Gordon vs. Stewart: 2007
The two best all-time from a NASCAR standpoint, Gordon and Stewart had another epic confrontation at the Glen in 2007, but this time they kept it to the race track. Gordon, going for his fifth career victory and trying to snap a skid at the track that remains to this day, wheel-hopped in Turn 1 with less then two laps remaining, and spun around while in the lead. It was a rare mistake from the four-time champion, who had led the previous 29 laps. And it opened the door for second-place Stewart, who charged through and held off Carl Edwards for his fourth victory in his last six starts at Watkins Glen. Two years later, Stewart added a track-record fifth.
3. Harvick vs. Montoya: 2007
In that same 2007 event, two other drivers got a little physical with one another outside Turn 1. Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya were running fifth and sixth when they tangled off a restart in an accident that also collected Jeff Burton. The two cars came to rest with their noses pointed at one another, and soon the drivers were doing the same. "Let's see if they're going to fight," ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace said. They didn't go that far -- but there was an awful lot of shoving, particularly from Montoya, until officials intervened. Tensions carried over into the garage, where JPM's team complained about Harvick's crew working on the car under a red flag. Just another Sunday at Watkins Glen.
2. Broken but not beaten: 1996
Dale Earnhardt never won at Watkins Glen -- his lone road-course victory came at Sonoma in 1995 -- but he turned in one of the more courageous performances of his career at the New York track in 1996. Two weeks after fracturing his sternum in a crash at Talladega, and one week after needing a relief driver at Indianapolis, Earnhardt decided to race at the Glen despite medical advice to the contrary. In great pain and working the steering wheel partly with his knees because use of his arms was so limited, the Intimidator won the pole with a track record time, and then went on to finish sixth in the race. He had a relief driver on standby -- but he never needed him.
1. A fantastic finish: 2012
Somewhat appropriately, the greatest NASCAR moment at Watkins Glen isn't a crash or an argument or a scuffle. It's simply one of the best finishes you'll ever see anywhere, three drivers slipping and sliding on a slick race track, with the lead on the final lap in the balance. Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose were 1-2-3 at the white flag, but Busch drifted way wide through Turn 1 and came down into Keselowski, sending the No. 18 car spinning. It came down to Keselowski and Ambrose, both cars blasting over rumble strips and through grassy cutoffs as an awestruck crowd looked on.
The end was just epic -- Ambrose put the bumper to Keselowski once, twice, and finally got by, but the Australian drifted sideways through a late corner and the Penske driver pulled even again. Approaching the final turn they were nearly door-to-door, but Ambrose pushed Keselowski high up the race track, and the champion-to-be fishtailed as he entered the final turn. Finally Ambrose was clear, and everyone exhaled and celebrated following a fantastic finish that was everything NASCAR is supposed to be.