Will Chase Elliott three-peat? 5 things to watch as NASCAR returns to Watkins Glen

Andrew Legare
Elmira Star-Gazette

Watkins Glen International's biggest annual summer party was denied last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 730 days will have passed by the time NASCAR is reunited with the historic road course this weekend.

Although the impact of COVID-19 remains, all systems are go for a spectator-filled, racing-packed three days at WGI, with racing starting Friday and concluding with Sunday's 90-lap, 220.5-mile Go Bowling at The Glen on the track's 2.45-mile short course. The featured Cup Series event will begin shortly after 3 p.m. and will be televised live on NBCSN.

Other races: 41-lap ARCA Menards Series Clean Harbors 100 at The Glen, 6 p.m. Friday; 72-lap Camping World Truck Series' United Rentals 176 at The Glen, 12:30 p.m. Saturday; and 82-lap Xfinity Series' Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey 200, 4 p.m. Saturday.

More:Q&A: Kevin Harvick on his win at Watkins Glen, NASCAR's return to New York state and more

The Xfinity sponsorship was announced this week and expands the track's relationship with Empire Merchants North, sponsor of the track's Jack Daniel's Club. Zippo had been longtime sponsor Watkins Glen's Xfinity event.

NASCAR is coming off an extended Olympic break, with Kyle Busch winning the most recent race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18.

There will be a connection to Tokyo at Watkins Glen this weekend. Watkins Glen native Olivia Coffey, who helped the U.S. finish fourth in the rowing women's eight at the Olympics, has been named an honorary official for Sunday's race.

Here are five storylines to watch as NACAR's top series resumes its regularly scheduled excursion to Watkins Glen that has been a staple on the calendar since 1986. Last year's event was moved to the road course at Daytona International Speedway.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Chase Elliott (9) leads driver Martin Truex Jr. (19) during the Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on Aug. 4, 2019.

Elliott goes for three straight

Chase Elliott's first career Cup victory came in 2018 at Watkins Glen, starting a four-season run that has included 13 wins and the 2020 season championship.

Elliott repeated at WGI in 2019, denying runner-up Martin Truex Jr. for the second year in a row. Elliott was dominant in 2019, earning the pole position, two stage victories and holding off 2017 race winner Truex over the final 30 laps.

Elliott, 25, is one of five drivers to win Watkins Glen's Cup race in back-to-back years. Mark Martin (1993-1995) and Jeff Gordon (1997-1999) are the only drivers to win the event three years in a row.

Elliott, son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, is third in Cup Series history with seven wins at road courses. Gordon leads with nine and Stewart is second with eight.

NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Larson (5) celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 race at the Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tenn., Sunday, June 20, 2021.

Larson, Hamlin battling in points

Four races remain until the field is set for the 16-driver playoffs.

Kyle Larson is first in the projected playoff standings. His four victories are the most in the Cup series and he has 15 top-15 finishes, tying him with Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

This has been a year of redemption for Larson, who was suspended by NASCAR and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing in 2020 after using a racial slur during an iRacing event in April. Larson signed with Hendrick Motorsports in October and was reinstated by NASCAR effective Jan. 1.

Despite not having a win, Hamlin leads the overall points standings, 874-861, ahead of Larson. William Byron is third with 749 points and Kyle Busch fourth with 740.

Nine drivers have clinched playoff spots: Larson, Byron, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Joey Logano, Truex, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Alex Bowman. Hamlin and Harvick, both past winners at WGI, lead a list of eight drivers who could clinch a spot with a win Sunday.

Races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Michigan International Speedway and Daytona will close out the pre-playoff schedule.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Busch (18) leads a group of cars during the Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on Aug. 4, 2019.

WGI part of a bigger road trip

This will be the fifth official road-course race of the season for the Cup Series, which in years past had road races at only Watkins Glen and Sonoma Raceway in California.

A sixth road race will be held Aug. 15 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and a seventh Oct. 10 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, one of the 10 playoff tracks.

Both victories this year for Elliott came at road courses: May 23 at the Circuit of Americas in Texas and July 4 at Road America in Wisconsin.

Larson's four wins came in a five-race stretch from May 30 to June 20 and included a victory June 6 at Sonoma.

Christopher Bell won the series' other road-course race Feb. 21 at Daytona. Kyle Busch won the exhibition Busch Clash at Daytona's road course Feb. 9 as a lead-in to the Daytona 500.

NASCAR Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski (2) waits beside his car before qualifying for the Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 20, 2021. There will be no Cup qualifying at Watkins Glen this year.

No qualifying

After a majority of last year's Cup races were held without qualifying, only eight of this year's events have qualifying, a decision made to streamline schedules in the pandemic.

The only race this weekend with practice and qualifying is ARCA. WGI President Michael Printup pointed out that's because the road course is new to most of those drivers.

John Hunter Nemechek, an 11-time winner in the Truck Series, said his experience at Watkins Glen in Xfinity races will give him an advantage over those who haven't competed at the challenging road course.

"There are kind of little tips and tricks of getting around Watkins Glen and things that you kind of have to look out for and places that you can make speed, so hopefully we have all those speed secrets," said Nemechek, who will start sixth Saturday.

More:Starting lineup for NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at Watkins Glen International

Starting lineups are determined based on a formula that includes finishing position of the last race (25%), car owner's finishing position from the last race (25%), team owner points ranking (35%) and the fastest lap in the previous race (15%).

The math has Brad Keselowski set to lead Sunday's 37-driver field from the pole, alongside Joey Logano. The rest of the top 11, in order: Ryan Blaney, Larson, Kevin Harvick, Hamlin, Bell, Aric Almirola, Truex, Alex Bowman and Elliott.

Justin Allgaier will start from the pole in the Xfinity race, alongside Austin Cindric.

In the Truck Series, Austin Hill will be on the pole alongside Todd Gilliland.

COVID-19 guidelines

Starting this weekend, NASCAR will require face masks at all times in enclosed areas, regardless of vaccination status. That includes haulers, the media center, restrooms, the infield care center, race control, suites and any other public area.

The changes were made by NASCAR after consulting with physicians and recently issued medical guidance based on a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the United States.

"This past week we started working on it and said, you know what, there might be a change this weekend," Printup said Wednesday. "That came internally Tuesday morning, so we already started working on it. But all the expertise is here, all the materials are here, we’ve got 20,000 masks that we’ve already ordered. If somebody forgets a mask and they’re going indoors, like a restroom or going into the Jack Daniel’s suite or something like that, we’ll have extra masks for them."

Follow Andrew Legare on Twitter: @SGAndrewLegare. You can also reach him at alegare@gannett.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.