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Three favorites emerge at Watkins Glen

August 09, 2014, Stu Hothem, NASCAR.com

For some like Ambrose it's the best remaining chance to make the Chase

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- For the last three years, three drivers have dominated the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Watkins Glen International. Heading into Sunday's Cheez-It 355 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN), Marcos Ambrose, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski will be the ones to watch once again.

But the stakes have been raised with a new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format and a driver with four wins on the superspeedway of road courses could tie Tony Stewart for most victories at the Glen.

With three wins and a locked-in top-30 spot, Keselowski has nothing to lose except this race for the fourth consecutive year. The No. 2 car has finished in runner-up position for the last three years as he looks for his first Sprint Cup win at the Glen. With a win, he would take the provisional top seed in the Chase and 12 bonus points for those wins.

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If Busch were to defend his win from last year, or if another driver already in the win column goes to Victory Lane, he would clinch a spot in the Chase.

Sitting 17th in points, Ambrose needs a win to enter the Chase conversation. He'll go for his third victory in four years after leading the most laps but falling to 31st last August on the New York road course.

"We got caught out last year by staying out too long and the yellow came out and that hurt us," Ambrose said. "We have to work on that strategy for this year. I think we have made gains in our fuel mileage, which will help that."

On paper, the Australian appears to be the favorite, but Busch says there's more than one favorite this weekend.

"I don't think I'm chasing a guy like Marcos (Ambrose) at all," Busch said. "I think that when you come into this race, though, you look at the favorites, and I think there's three favorites because they've been the top three guys here the last four years, three years, whatever it's been. It's myself, the 2 (Brad Keselowski) and the 9 (Ambrose).

"I think you're going to see those three cars be fast. I think you can always mix in a fourth and a fifth guy depending on who those are."

AJ Allmendinger, another contender for the win and a Chase spot, agrees with Busch's assessment of three favorites, but it's more than just a feel for the course that accounts for their success.

"It's just a feel around this place," Allmendinger said. "But it's also the way strategy works out. It can be really strange sometimes. I felt like the previous two years that Marcos won maybe he wasn't the quickest car, and it worked out to his favor to where the first year I think Kyle (Busch) made a mistake on the restart and he got around him. 

"The next year with the whole Brad and Kyle incident, last year was probably the race he should have won and had everybody dominated and fuel played into a strategy there."

Another driver who has clinched a spot in the Chase, Jeff Gordon, is on Busch's radar even though the four-time champion and four-time Glen winner last won the championship and a race here in 2001. The points leader won the Coors Light Pole Award on Saturday as well.

"This year obviously the 24 has been real stout -- maybe he can carry that on into this week," Busch said.

Gordon's confidence is high because his cars are strong, and he likes his chances for another throwback weekend. In May, he claimed his first win since 2002 at Kansas Speedway, and his Indianapolis Motor Speedway win two weeks ago was his first since 2004.

"When I look at tracks over the last couple of years that have probably been our worst I really think of Watkins Glen," Gordon said. "Even though we have had great success here in the past I can’t say that we have recently.

"To follow up the Brickyard 400 win and our win at Kansas with a win here at Watkins Glen, I think that would be a real true sign of just how good this team is."

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