Fans will be at Watkins Glen on Friday. So will drivers. 

There just won’t be any cars. 

NASCAR is experimenting with same day qualifying this season for four races. The first was last week at Pocono. 

This Sunday, Monster Energy Cup drivers will race for position in the morning and race for the checkered flag in the afternoon. 

Usually, qualifying was held on Friday. Instead, the Glen will host a Fan Fest. 

“Drivers are going to mix with the three, four thousand fans, too. They’re going to give away free sponsored stuff and swag and hats and all kinds of little chotchke stuff,” Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup said. “We heard back from down at Pocono, the fans loved it. So, if the fans love it, we love it.”

The group of drivers rotates from race to race, but each track is guaranteed some A-listers and NASCAR didn’t disappoint with the Glen. 

The drivers scheduled for the Fan Fest are Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, and Ty Dillon.

Willie Nelson’s son Lukas is the concert headliner. The event is free to anyone who already has a ticket to the racing weekend. There is a VIP event that allows more personal access to the drivers, but the limited space event is already sold out. 

The same day qualifying creates it’s own group of unique challenges. It limits adjustments between the pole race and the real race, something that is more necessary considering NASCAR sees a road course only twice a year. 

“There’s more pressure. Which I think is good,” Printup said. “Some drivers are hesitant about it. But, at the end of the day, that might cause some nerves. It might cause some slips. A road course is always a gamble. It’s a wild card.”

Printup says the race is trending toward a third straight sellout, something that has only happened at Daytona on the NASCAR circuit. 

Attendance is likely being pushed by local fans who want to see Dale Earnhardt, Junior race the Glen for the last time. He’s retiring at the end of the season. 

Fans will receive a special Dale, Jr. related gift upon entering the track this weekend, but Printup refused to spill the beans on that surprise. 

The race will be called the I Love NY 355 for the first time. It’s actually  the first of two consecutive state tourism sponsored races. The Pure Michigan 400 is next week in Brooklyn, Michigan. 

According to Printup, Watkins Glen makes up 232 million of New York’s billion dollar tourism industry. It’s also a good excuse for Governor Cuomo to see the race. 

“The governor has been great to Watkins Glen,” Printup said. “He’s a fan. He likes racing. He likes his Corvettes. He likes his Chevy products, which is awesome.” 

For the second straight year, Watkins Glen won USA Today’s fan poll as the best NASCAR track. Indy racing is back at the Glen next month for a second straight year. Thunder Road is raining success. 

“Lucky we have one of the best fan bases,” Printup said. “Road racing is becoming the most exciting racing on the circuit. We’re fortunate. It’s right place, right time and our team is taking full advantage of it. At the end of the day, it’s the fans who buy tickets. It’s exciting.”

Hopefully, the fans will feel the same way on Friday.