WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Watkins Glen is vastly different from Sonoma, where Clint Bowyer triumphed in June, but Bowyer has shown enough speed in his Sprint Cup car this weekend that a sweep of circuit's road courses wouldn't be out of the question.
"It's a different beast here -- quite a bit different, I think," Bowyer said. "When I go to Sonoma, it seems real technical, kind of like a short track of road racing, really.
"We come here and I struggled a bit in years past. We got better last year. I'm looking forward to it. We have that same race car we won with [at Sonoma]."
Indeed, Bowyer, in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing, is driving the same car he ran at Sonoma -- one of the No. 47 Toyotas built by MWR for Marcos Ambrose when Ambrose was driving for JTG/Daugherty Racing.
Ambrose, now in a Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, is the odds-on favorite to repeat last year's winning performance at The Glen. However, Bowyer can't be discounted, even though he has posted just one top-10 and led but one lap in six starts at the 2.45-mile road course.
The race is pivotal for Bowyer, who can secure a spot in NASCAR's 10-race playoff for the Cup championship with top-10 finishes in the next five races before the Chase field is set at Richmond. Bowyer is 10th in the standings, 57 points ahead of two-time 2012 winner Kasey Kahne in 11th.
"I've just got to stay solid," Bowyer said. "Those single-digit finishes are going to be plenty good enough. You just can't have the catastrophic day. We can afford to have one, but we can't afford to have two. ...Just got to get through here, keep the thing on the race track, take care of the gearbox and do the things that we do each and every week. It's just more difficult to do on these road courses."
The hardest thing about road-course qualifying, says Jimmie Johnson, is jumping in the car after a long break and trying to put down one perfect lap.
Unlike the Nationwide Series, which qualifies in groups of six at road courses, with a chance to post a strong time over several laps, the Cup cars are one and done.
"It's more about getting out of rhythm," said Johnson, who qualified third for Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen. "[In] the Nationwide Series, you get a couple of shots at it, and that's a nice way to find your rhythm, and it's really good for the Nationwide Series to qualify that way. A lot of the drivers don't have a lot of road course experience in this style of race car.
"At the Cup level, you don't get that luxury. To me, it's all about rhythm. It's a problem that I have at Martinsville (a .526-mile oval). I'm such a rhythm driver that Martinsville qualifying gets me, because we sit on ice for a couple of hours and then go back out to run -- and I miss it. But road-course wise, I've been doing a better job."
So much so, in fact, that Johnson wouldn't like to see the Nationwide qualifying format at road courses adopted for Cup.
"From a selfish standpoint, I'm finally good at this style," he said. "I see a lot of guys making mistakes, so I guess I'm content with it being like it is. But a couple of years ago, I would have lobbied for the other way."
Kenseth mum on next year
Matt Kenseth isn't exactly a man without a race team, but he still hasn't announced his deal for next year.
It's a poorly kept secret that Kenseth will be driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, but sources have said Kenseth is embargoed contractually from announcing his new ride until a later date, perhaps before the end of August.
Asked about the possible timing of the announcement, Kenseth was typically circumspect.
"I would if I knew, but I don't know," Kenseth said.
But is the deal for next year still in place?
"I hope so," Kenseth said with a laugh.
- Clint Bowyer