NASCAR: Live from Watkins Glen

Smoke on their minds

Tony Stewart is not at Watkins Glen -- he's still recovering from two surgeries on the right leg he broke Monday night racing a sprint car -- but his presence is certainly felt.

Drivers and team officials from across NASCAR are still reeling from the accident that forced the three-time Sprint Cup champion out of his car for the foreseeable future.

They also were supportive of his efforts to race anything, anytime.

"... I look at the coverage and opinions that are flying around, and it's troubled me some to see people giving him a hard time about his decisions to race other vehicles," said five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "We always praise him for his contributions to the motorsports world and his ability to drive and race anything and to own all these different types of vehicles.

"And then you look at the racetracks that he owns and his involvement with. The guy has done so much for our sport and of course we don't want to see him injured, but I've been disappointed that people have given him a hard time over it."

Stewart is definitely out this weekend here at Watkins Glen. Max Papis is replacing him in the No. 14 Chevrolet. It was also announced that Stewart will miss next weekend at Michigan, and no timetable was given for his return. A replacement driver for him beyond this weekend will be announced at a later time.

Danica Patrick chimed in with the insider's perspective on her teammate and boss, and what being at the track without him will be like.

"Well, he is like one of the masters of this track," Patrick said. "I called him the master. He's won here a lot, and so before we left I asked for all of his speed secrets.

"We will see if they work," she added, laughing. "You know, he just has a good spirit about him, and everybody that works around him or doesn't, to be honest, loves Tony. He will just be missed from a presence and a morale standpoint."

-- K. Lee Davis



Speeds up in final practice

Eight drivers posted a lap over 127 mph in Friday's final Sprint Cup practice, with Carl Edwards leading the way at 128.397.

Only Martin Truex Jr. went over 127 mph in the first practice.

Brian Keselowski was the slowest at 118.072. With only 43 drivers entered in Sunday's race, no driver has to fear qualifying for the 43-car field.

-- K. Lee Davis

Qualifying rules, road course style

NASCAR's new road course qualifying rules are in effect for Saturday's session.

Cars will go out in groups based on the practice times from the first Sprint Cup practice session that concluded at 4:30 p.m. ET.

Three groups of six cars will qualify first on Saturday (comprised of the 18 slowest cars), followed by five groups of five cars.

The five fastest cars from practice will comprise the final group on track.

Each group gets five minutes on track, with the group's time starting when the first car in the group crosses the start/finish line under the green flag. The fastest time in the session for each car will be the official qualifying speed for that driver.

The fast five on Friday after the first practice?

Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya and Casey Mears will get the final crack at the pole.

-- K. Lee Davis




Papis is ready to roll for Stewart

Max Papis is geared up to take Tony Stewart's place in Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at the Glen (1 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN) and he isn't taking the responsibility lightly.

"I hope that Tony will be back soon because that is actually his car," Papis said. "It's just an honor to be able to be called by an organization like Stewart-Haas and fill the shoes of Tony. It was not really a dream come true, but it was more like recognition towards all the work that I've done so far in my career. I feel that I have a lot of confidence to go out there and give them solid results.

"Obviously, if I would have been maybe 25 years old, I would have been maybe sitting on the toilet for how nervous I was, but I guess now I'm 30-plus 12, so I feel pretty good about it."

All kidding aside, Papis is an accomplished driver throughout the world, with time spent in the Champ Car World Series, 24 Hours of Le Mans and Formula One. He was originally going to race a Ferrari this Sunday in the American Le Mans Series contest at Road America (3 p.m. ET, ABC) in Elkhart Lake, Wis.

For Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli, having Papis in the seat this weekend was an easy call to make.

"He had done some road course testing recently, about two weeks ago, in the No. 14 car," Zipadelli said. "There was a little bit of a database built. A little communication had already been started and we felt like that was our best option for this weekend. Max has a lot of experience here and it's road racing [experience]."

-- K. Lee Davis



Chasing Ambrose?

Marcos Ambrose has won the past two races at Watkins Glen, and he's the odds-on favorite to do it again, if you ask the drivers he will be competing against.

But he still has to run the race, and he knows everyone will be aiming for him on Sunday.

"If you've played poker, the chances of continuing to win get slimmer as you win, so I think it's gonna be a really hard weekend for us," he said. "I don't anticipate domination. I know we're gonna be a contender. I know we're gonna be up there in the mix, but there is certainly no guarantee of success here, and we have to make sure we get going here in practice -- if we get some -- and get on the front foot and hopefully have a car that's close that we can be ready.

"I feel like I'm a little behind coming into this weekend, especially with the inclement weather. We'll just have to wait and see how it works out."

Martin Truex Jr., who won earlier this season at the other road course in Sonoma, even credited Ambrose with helping Truex's team, Michael Waltrip Racing, elevate its road-race program when Ambrose was on board.

"They spent a lot of time testing different things, and road racers kind of have a different mentality when it comes to tuning on the car," Truex said. "And the little things that you need to work on -- transmission things and brakes and stuff, he definitely really led us in the right direction."

Jeff Gordon, one of the best road course drivers in NASCAR history with five wins at Sonoma and four at The Glen, pinpointed what he believes works for Ambrose, particularly at Watkins Glen.

"What makes him so good -- not to mention his road racing experience over the years -- is his aggressiveness," Gordon said of Ambrose. "He's just so aggressive. While I think sometimes that holds him back on the ovals, it pays off big time here.

"That's going to be tough to beat. I think it was interesting because we were at Sonoma, and he doesn't do as well at Sonoma as he does here because this track, it loves aggressiveness. Sonoma does not like aggressiveness.

"I think you're going to see him be extremely fast this weekend. He was fast at Sonoma, but just the fall-off was pretty big there, where here that's not the case. I think he's going to be very, very difficult to beat."

-- K. Lee Davis



A welcome stop

Attendance woes have been noted across NASCAR with the exception of a few tracks, but Watkins Glen has never seen much of a dip. It's a place most drivers enjoy coming to, and it seems the fans feel the same way.

"There's just something about the atmosphere of this place," Jeff Gordon said. "You go into the campground and there's just people that love being here and love being a part of the event. They're having a good time and it's not just about coming and watching a race, it's a lot more than that and I think that's just part of the appeal.

"There's a lot of very avid fans around this area, too, that don't maybe get a chance to get to NASCAR races or they are just a little more road racing enthusiasts, hard to say. We love it and we love coming here."

Friday's crowd was building as the weather continued to improve and the campgrounds were filling up quickly.

-- K. Lee Davis



Weather permitting

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Friday isn't over yet, but the amount of rain the Southern Tier of New York is getting is causing problems inside and outside the track at Watkins Glen International.

Roads to and from Watkins Glen have experienced intermittent closures due to flooding and the campgrounds around the track are pretty swampy.

NASCAR hopes the track is ready for the first Sprint Cup practice at 3:30 p.m. ET. If all goes as planned, track activity would conclude with final Sprint Cup practice beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET. Nationwide practice will be sandwiched in between.

The forecast for Saturday and Sunday is excellent, however, and Sprint Cup qualifying (11:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2) and the Nationwide Series race (2:30 p.m. ET on ABC) should be a go for Saturday.

-- K. Lee Davis