The Cup Series' second trip to a road course didn't get off to a smooth start thanks to Mother Nature. The first practice session at Watkins Glen International was rained out Friday, but NASCAR did manage to sneak in Happy Hour. Once the cars were finally on the track, it was Kurt Busch emerging as the somewhat surprise name atop the leaderboard. The 2004 series champ has taken his lumps on and off the track in 2012 as he tries to repair his image by driving for Phoenix Racing. The results haven't always been pretty, but his best finish of the year did come at Infineon Raceway when he finished third. Considering he has finished in the top 10 in three of his last four starts at Watkins Glen, including a second-place run in 2010, there is a good chance his road course magic could continue this weekend.
Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski ranked second and third on the charts, and the two are heading in opposite directions at Watkins Glen. Newman finished second in his track debut, but he hasn't had a single top-five finish since. In fact, he hasn't even cracked the top 10 in his last five starts at The Glen. Meanwhile, Keselowski finished an unimpressive 20th in his track debut in 2010, but he finished second last year. Throw in the fact that Keselowski has scored the second-most points in the series over the past six races, and he should the driver targeted by fantasy owners this weekend.
A couple of road course heavy hitters rounded out the top five in Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Stewart's five wins at Watkins Glen are the most in series history, and his 7.1 average finish at the track is the second best among active drivers. Gordon owns four wins at The Glen in his own right, and his nine career road course wins are the most in NASCAR history. Gordon has actually been the hottest driver in the series over the past two months, but both drivers should be excellent fantasy options this weekend.
Given the lengthy lap times at road courses, it was no surprise to see that not a single driver ran 10 consecutive laps. However, looking at the rest of the top 10 in terms of top speed reveals a few other solid fantasy plays. Carl Edwards led the back half of the top 10, and he has been as reliable as any driver at The Glen. He has six straight finishes of 12th or better at the track, and he has finished in the top five in two of his last three starts.
Marcos Ambrose posted the seventh-fastest lap of the practice session, and he is a driver that every fantasy owner should be adding to their rosters. He is the defending winner of this weekend's race, and in four starts at Watkins Glen in the Cup Series, Ambrose has never finished worse than third. Not surprisingly, his 2.3 average finish at the track is the best among active drivers.
Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 10, and Busch is the driver to target out of the bunch. He has six straight top-10s at Watkins Glen, and he went to Victory Lane at the track in 2008. Busch has actually cracked the top five in three of his last four starts at The Glen, including a third-place run last year.
The two biggest losers of the session were Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton. Both drivers were logging some laps when the No. 30 car of Patrick Long lost an engine in front of them. Both drivers lost control in the oil on the track and bounced into the outside wall. Burton's car eventually came to a stop after slamming into the rear of Hamlin's No. 11. Both drivers are going to backup cars, and with the limited practice, they will definitely be facing an uphill battle.
On the plus side for Hamlin, Burton and the rest of the field, NASCAR is going to attempt to squeeze in an additional practice session before qualifying if the weather permits. For the record, showers are possible once again. The extra practice is slated for early Saturday morning, and while the track temperatures and conditions won't exactly mirror those the drivers will face on Sunday afternoon, NASCAR is trying to make the best of a bad situation after the first practice Friday was washed out.
Happy Hour Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)