A year ago, Joey Logano came to Watkins Glen International hoping for a road course breakthrough to add to his resume. He departed with two trophies after a weekend sweep of the Xfinity and Sprint Cup races.
He's back at The Glen aiming for a repeat performance and started strong, winning Saturday's Xfinity Zippo 200 from the pole just as he did a year ago.
"That's what we've come here to do. We'd better have the attitude that we can do that, or else we shouldn't be here," Logano said. "Confidence is high. I'm kind of mad I didn't get the Cup pole."
Logano, who will start seventh Sunday in the Cup race, has finished seventh or better in four of his last five starts at Watkins Glen, and in his last two starts at NASCAR's other road course in Sonoma he was fifth last year and third in June in his No. 22 Team Penske Ford.
A player in last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship until a run-in with Matt Kenseth at Martinsville derailed his title hopes, Logano is on pace to be a factor again when the postseason gets underway in September. On the season, he has one win, eight top-five and 13 top-10 finishes, and five of those top-fives have come in the past nine races. Only five races remain before the Chase begins.
"I don't think we're far off. We had a little bit of a seesaw," said Logano, who led Monday's rain-shortened race at Pocono until he was caught up in a late crash. "I think we're starting to see some speed come back in our cars. We had just as many wins at this point last year. I don't feel like we're behind. We can still go get six or seven wins before the year is out, I think. We've got to peak at the right time."
Like Kentucky, Watkins Glen International has a new racing surface after a repave in the offseason. Goodyear has brought a harder-compound tire, which has made grip elusive, but it doesn't wear down so fast. The 2.45-mile layout also features new concrete for the rumble strips that border the turns and run-off areas.
"It's not as different as you would think," Logano said. "The tire's a lot harder and you also have a rules change. The aero package is different. It's not oh-my-gosh different. There's not much tire falloff. It's smoother."
Six Sprint Cup Series drivers — Logano and Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Kyle Larson, and Trevor Bayne — entered the Zippo 200 to get more track time on the new surface. Keselowski also logged more than 70 laps in a Goodyear tire test in late July as he seeks that breakthrough Cup triumph at The Glen. He finished second three straight times from 2011-13, losing in late-race duels with Marcos Ambrose and Kyle Busch each time.
Back at Watkins Glen for the final time are the top two road racers in NASCAR history — Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Gordon, who came out of retirement and is driving his third race in the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports as Dale Earnhardt Jr. recovers from a concussion, will be making his 800th career start. He qualified 21st.
Stewart, who has a record five wins at Watkins Glen, is one road victory behind Gordon. Stewart's eighth Cup road course win and first victory in three years came at Sonoma in June. He slammed leader Denny Hamlin into the wall on the final turn of the race to snatch the win, smoke spewing from his No. 14 Chevrolet as he crossed the finish line.
Stewart, who will start third Sunday, had been mired in an 84-race losing streak dating to 2013. The 45-year-old three-time Cup champion, who's retiring at season's end, has reverted to form, heating up in the dog days of summer. Stewart has four top-fives in the last six races and has scored the second-most points in the last seven to get firmly entrenched in the 16-driver field for NASCAR's playoffs.
Impressive stuff for a driver who missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a vertebra fracture in an all-terrain-vehicle accident in late January.
"We will need to continue to build on what we've built up to this point," Stewart said. "If I felt like we were a contender to win every race right now, then maybe I would want the Chase to begin now. But we need to gain a little bit before the Chase starts. We are going to make good use of the next five races."