AJ Allmendinger knows all too well what's at stake on the road course at Watkins Glen International. So, too, does Kyle Busch.
Both drivers enter Sunday's Sprint Cup race at the storied road course with a keen eye on NASCAR's postseason — the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Allmendinger, the defending race winner and 23rd in points, needs a win to get in. Busch simply needs a solid finish to continue his remarkable comeback.
Busch has won four of the last six races after missing the first 11 with a broken right leg and left foot suffered in the Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona. His amazing rally against stiff odds began in earnest at Sonoma in June — he won in just his fifth race back, and on a road course, no less, and has moved to within 13 points of 30th place in the points, the cutoff for the Chase.
"You try to make the most of it and have some fun with it, come out of here with some decent finishes," said Busch, who has two wins in 10 starts at The Glen and will start eighth on Sunday. "I'm feeling better this week for sure than what I was at Sonoma. I'm doing really, really good, and I feel really, really good week in and week out getting out of the car."
The 33-year-old Allmendinger has emerged as one of the top road racers in the series. He beat the best in Marcos Ambrose in a fender-slamming victory at Watkins Glen International last year for his first triumph in 213 starts in Cup competition.
That gave JTG Daugherty Racing its first spot in the Chase, and a year later the same scenario presents itself — win and they're in again.
At least one obstacle is gone. Ambrose, who won twice in Cup and four straight times in NASCAR's second-tier series at The Glen, returned to race in his native Australia after last season.
Allmendinger didn't waste time taking advantage, capturing the pole on Saturday.
"Just to experience something that I've worked so hard for eight or nine years ... was really special," Allmendinger said. "The thing I've learned about the Sprint Cup Series is it doesn't matter whether somebody needs a win or not. If the opportunity is there, he or she is going to go out there to do whatever they can to get the win.
"It's no different than last year. The only difference is having the confidence that if it comes down to crunch time like that, I'm able to go out there and make it happen."
In six career starts at Watkins Glen, Allmendinger has two top-5s and four top-10s and has the third-best driver rating (100.5). He won the pole on the road course at Sonoma in June before faltering when a fuel pickup problem sapped the power of his No. 47 Chevrolet. That was the same car that he drove to victory here a year ago and the same car he'll race on Sunday.
"I feel confident," Allmendinger said. "I have to be on my 'A' game to have a shot to win. They say Marcos isn't here, it should be easy for you. You have to remember Jeff Gordon was leading (last year) when he broke. There's a lot of great drivers. You can't just single out one or two."
While the car may be the same, the mood in the shop of the one-car team is different. Despite just three top-10s this season, the focus is still spot-on.
"Last year was our first year fully working together," Allmendinger said. "This year, even through our struggles, we all believe in each other. We've all stuck together as a team. We know we're all trying to go in the right direction. We just have to figure out how to get there.
"That win has helped a lot. It's made us believe in each other. Even in the down times so far this year, we've stuck together a lot better. That trust factor is way better. Even if the points don't show it, we're a lot better race team than we were at this time last year."