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Five things to watch in today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen

Cheez-It 355 - Qualifying

Cheez-It 355 - Qualifying

Jeff Zelevansky

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – An undulating 2.45-mile road course -- where talent is regarded at a premium and aerodynamics emphasized at a minimum -- hardly is where manufacturer influence is expected to shine.

That makes General Motors dominance in qualifying for Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International all the more striking.

Led by A.J. Allmendinger’s 2015 sweep of road-course pole positions, Chevrolets captured the top seven starting spots and nine of the top 10. Only the hottest driver in NASCAR’s premier series – Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota qualified eighth – was able to break the stranglehold.

Ford didn’t crack the top 10 and placed only one Fusion – Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 qualified 11th -- in the final round in qualifying.

Though little of the preparation for Watkins Glen will transfer to the schedule’s preponderance of 1.5-mile ovals that will factor greatly into determining the Sprint Cup championship, the disparity has some concerned – particularly with Ford having won only two of the season’s first 21 races.

“A lot,” Keselowski said Saturday when asked what Ford needed to improve. “There’s no secret. We’re not where we want to be at the Cup level. I think there’s a lot of reasons for that. It’s going to require a lot of work, and we’re trying to get there.

“I think we can get there, but there’s no doubt to me that the Toyotas and Chevrolet camp are a little bit ahead of where we are at the Cup level.”

Toyota has won four consecutive for the first time and five of the past six races in NASCAR’s premier series in an emergence coinciding with Busch’s return from a broken right leg and fractured left foot. But the Japanese manufacturer also struggled mightily in qualifying at The Glen with only four Camrys starting in the top 20.

Though divergent strategies and double-file restart aggression can turn any road-course event upside down, the Chevrolets’ excellent starting positions tab them as major favorites at the Glen.

Other storylines to watch:

Difficult milestone: Sunday marks one year since his sprint car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr., and that isn’t the only reason why the focus has returned to Tony Stewart this weekend. Ward’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit Friday against the three-time series champion, who will race at Watkins Glen today for the first time in three years after missing last season because of Ward’s death and the 2013 event because of a broken leg.

The all-time winner at Watkins Glen is well-positioned to earn his sixth victory here after qualifying third (his best starting position at the track since winning from the pole in 2005), and triumphing in the midst of tumult and controversy at the Glen wouldn’t be new for him. In 2002, Stewart earned his first win at Watkins Glen a week after he struck a photographer in postrace at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nearly losing his sponsor and ride.

Pit miscues: It’s the only track on the Cup circuit where cars enter the pits from the left, forcing teams to complete their pit stop choreography in reverse. There were 33 pit penalties assessed during Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, and while some of those likely could be attributed to drivers adjusting to NASCAR’s video officiating system (which isn’t used at standalone races such as last week at Iowa Speedway), they also could be a precursor of what’s to come today.

Stoppage time: If the 90-lap race begins with a long green-flag stint, keep an eye on when the first stops are made. Teams that are in the pits within the first 20 laps likely will be on a three-stop strategy that was employed by last year’s top two finishers, Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose.

The key to making an extra stop, though, is having a fast car. Without speed, it’s a futile tactic.

Goodbye 24: After a record nine wins on road-course tracks in Sprint Cup, this likely will be Jeff Gordon’s last time in a stock car making laps that require right turns. Last year he started from the pole and led 29 laps before a mechanical problem, so his fifth-place starting spot today bodes well for the potential of a triumphant farewell.