Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

MORGAN: Five Takeaways from the I Love New York 355 at The Glen

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

On Sunday, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series took to Watkins Glen International, a seven-turn, 2.45-mile road course located in upstate New York for the final road course race of the 2017 season. Always an entertaining race, this year’s I Love New York 355 at The Glen was another in a long line of fun races to watch. So, what were some of the top storylines leaving Watkins Glen on Sunday?

Can Martin Truex, Jr. Be Stopped?

After winning four races and only finishing 11th in points last season, Martin Truex, Jr. and Furniture Row Racing have come into 2017 with guns blazing and have been a dominant force week in and week out this season as they look to put last season’s disappointments behind them and set their sights on making it all the way to Homestead to compete for the title.

On Sunday at Watkins Glen, Truex used fuel mileage to his advantage to claim his fourth win of the season through 22 races and his No. 78 team shows no signs of slowing down with the playoffs only a month away.

Under NASCAR’s new stage racing format this season, Truex has flourished, claiming 14 stage wins to accumulate a staggering 34 playoff points, 18 points more than his closest competitor in the playoff standings, Jimmie Johnson. In addition to the large gap between Truex and the rest of the field in playoff points, he also holds a commanding 116-point lead in driver points, which means if he continues to stay in the points lead through the regular season finale at Richmond, he will gain another bonus of playoff points to put him even further ahead.

When the playoffs begin, Truex will have a huge advantage over his fellow drivers, so it is almost a foregone conclusion that he will be one of the four drivers in the Championship Four at Homestead for the season finale. Barring a major collapse between now and then, everyone might as well go ahead and pencil in Truex as the favorite for the championship this season.

“This team has been incredible,” said Truex. “What we did last year I felt like we underachieved really often and felt like we were a lot better team than we showed even though we had some good results. We’ve had some bad luck along the way this year but things have gone right and we’ve been more consistent. Just coming together as a group. This is our fourth year together and we just keep getting stronger. It takes time to get these things all to gel and to figure out all of these tracks and figure out how to deal with the ups and downs of this sport and we feel like we’ve done a good job of that. We paid our dues and now we’re kind of reaping the benefits.”

Toyota Power

In addition to the dominance that Truex and Furniture Row have shown all season, Toyota as a whole seems to be getting their feet under them at just the right time in the season to make a run through the playoffs. Early on, Joe Gibbs Racing looked to be having troubles trying to keep up with their affiliate team of Furniture Row, but ever since Denny Hamlin scored the first win of the season for the organization a few weeks ago at New Hampshire, JGR has caught back up with a vengeance.

Week in and week out, JGR and Furniture Row are producing some of the fastest cars on track and Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen showed just that as Toyota powered machines made up the top four finishers and Toyotas led 59 of 90 laps.

Toyota was in the same position last season heading into the playoffs only to sputter out before the season ended, but this season, they just seem to have a leg up on everyone.

Kyle Busch vs Brad Keselowski

It’s no secret that there is no love lost between Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski and Sunday’s race was yet another entry in their years-long rivalry.

Midway through the race, Busch was slicing and dicing his way through the field after having to make an unscheduled pit stop. Heading into the inner loop, Busch was passing Keselowski when the two made contact, sending both cars for a spin.

Both were able to get their cars righted and back underway, but the damage had already been done. Busch would wind up finishing seventh after having one of the fastest cars on track, while Keselowski ran into pit road trouble and finished 15th.

“I was going into the corner and I had the 47 behind me and when I got into the corner the 18 next to me,” said Keselowski. “My spotter called it but we were already in the corner. It was too much for me to avoid. We got into each other and that hurt everybody.”

“This is a track where you fight for inches and we both are probably not willing to give in on it.”

“Nobody is happy when you have contact. It didn’t help my day at all either, I can tell you that. I wasn’t looking to get into him and I don’t think he was looking to get into me. He probably had the dominant car. He didn’t need any trouble. Neither did I.”

So, will the two talk about the incident post-race?

“Nah,” said Keselowski. “I don’t think he is really the listening type, so that is pretty doubtful.”

While Busch wasn’t interviewed after the race, he did take to Twitter to express his thoughts on the whole ordeal.

NBC Broadcast Experiment a Success

For the race at Watkins Glen, NBC detoured from their normal race coverage to employ a new strategy for the intricacies that road course racing brings. In addition to having Leigh Diffey bringing his road course knowledge to the broadcast booth alongside Steve Letarte, the network also had other reporters stationed at various positions around the track to give like feedback and commentary on the race as the field passed by, much like a radio broadcast in which each reporter has a certain section of the track to focus on.

With veteran MRN Radio announcer Mike Bagley stationed in the Esses, and drivers Parker Kligerman and Jeff Burton stationed in the Carousel and Turn 6, respectively, the TV audience not only got to hear the input from the booth, but also from the knowledgeable reporters around the track.

The new venture was well received after the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the Cup Series races, and should NBC want to try it again at other tracks, I, for one, would be all for it.

Playoff Picture

Before Sunday’s race, many thought the playoff picture would be thrown into complete chaos following Watkins Glen, but the opposite actually happened. We didn’t get a new winner from outside the top-16, so three drivers still remain eligible to make it in on points along, and a pretty straightforward race, led to the points gap between those currently in the top-16 and those on the outside looking in grew a bit.

Chase Elliott (+39), Jamie McMurray (+34), and Matt Kenseth (+28) still remain 14th throught 16th, respectively in points, with Clint Bowyer within striking distance in 17th.

Joey Logano, who came into Watkins Glen 69 points in arears, now sits even further back, with 95 points between him and 16th after finishing 24th, meaning he really is in must-win territory over the next four weeks.

“Best case scenario we were going to finish top-10 which does nothing for us,” said Logano. “A top-5 or a win is the only thing that is going to help us, so we went for it by pitting and putting four tires on and hoping to get a caution and maybe cycle ahead of cars with new tires. Unfortunately, it went green all the way and we didn’t get a good finish. We need to win the next few races here.”

Everything could change with a new winner, but at this point, it seems to be a four-man race to see which three drivers will make it into the top-16 by the time the checkered flag flies at Richmond.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.