Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday June 21, 2013
It seems like lately, a lot of fans have been turned on to road course racing — especially since the show on the last lap at Watkins Glen last August — when previously, the road races were considered something fans have to endure twice a year. Few fans had Sonoma or Watkins Glen circled on their calendars as “must watch” races. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve always been one of the oddballs who looked forward to the road courses.) Many people thought and still think that two road courses on the schedule is two too many.
And that couldn’t be further from the truth. NASCAR needs more road course races in Sprint Cup, not fewer.
Really, NASCAR needs more of any track that isn’t a 1.5-to-2-mile oval, but there are a couple of compelling reasons for adding road races.
One is that race cars are expensive to build. The CoT and Gen-6 chassis are a bit less specialized than their fourth-generation counterparts, but many teams still build dedicated cars for the road races, and all of them spend a considerable amount of time setting up their road cars long before they hit the track. Teams put as much care and work into their road cars as they do the intermediate ones.
The problem is that teams are doing an awful lot of work for… two races. That’s just not very cost effective. Think of it like a manufacturing business; like, say, a bakery. If your bestseller is chocolate cupcakes, it makes sense that you make a lot of chocolate cupcakes, with a few vanilla batches here and there to satisfy that faction. And then, one customer wants just two carrot cake cupcakes… it takes as much time and, ultimately, money to get out the ingredients, make the batter, bake those two cupcakes in the oven, and frost them. That’s a lot of time and effort for two cupcakes.
It wouldn’t take that baker much more time and money to make, say, four carrot cake cupcakes if there was a market for them, right? It’s a bit similar to what the teams go through. The cars are built and setups are tweaked for just two tracks… but those cars could easily be run on two more road courses. Some of the setup is very similar. In short, the team would get more bang for its buck on those cars if there were four road races during the season. But, like the baker, they’ve spent the time and effort on just two. Even the next most underused cars, superspeedway ones, get run four times a year. Yes, in this day and age, it’s a lot easier to use a car built for one type of track on another… but there is still so much prep time to get them ready that just two races is impractical to the teams.
That’s not the biggest reason, though. The best reason for adding at least two road races every year is the unpredictability factor. Some oval drivers are also great road racers, but some aren’t… and some who are just passable on ovals shine when they make turns both ways. In other words, it’s not as much of a given that the winner will come from a select handful of drivers — the same handful that’s considered the one the winner will come from almost every week. Sure, some of the names are the same. Tony Stewart, for example, is just that good a driver. But others, like Jamie McMurray, do surprise a bit more with their road course prowess, where some weekly contenders, like Jimmie Johnson, are rarely even a factor. Then there are the road course specialists, like Marcos Ambrose or Juan Pablo Montoya, who vault from longshots to favorites overnight. Small teams also can mix it up with the powerhouses. Kurt Busch very nearly won for one-car Phoenix Racing last year, while Casey Mears was running in the top 10 late in the race before both got bitten by bad luck. Everybody loves an underdog, and the road courses are some of the few places where they can run as almost equals to the top teams.
Further, there’s no excuse for not having a road course race in the Chase for that very reason. If you want to make an argument for the champion being the best in the sport, well, he should have to excel (or at least suck it up and survive) on a road course. Would a road course have altered history in keeping the oft-maligned Jimmie Johnson from winning five in a row? Perhaps. While Johnson does have a win at Sonoma, he really should have been second, and he’s never been good at Watkins Glen, while other drivers are more versatile. It is, of course, impossible to say one way or another if we’d still be calling Johnson “Five-Time,” but it’s a valid question. Why shouldn’t the eventual champion of the sport have to make some right turns to get there?
The only other major American auto racing series that races on both ovals and road/street courses, the IZOD IndyCar Series, crowns its champion based on the entire season, so the ovals count just as much for the road course specialists and the road races count for the oval guys. The champion is the guy who did best on both types of track — and would-be champions have been foiled by one or the other. Sure, the road races count in NASCAR, but we all know that regular season races mean very little toward the actual title. They’ll get a driver into the title run, but that’s all… only those last ten races really count.
Which also means why should the title contenders race for anything but points on Sunday and again in August at Watkins Glen? Sure, there are the bonus points, but they can get those at, say, Kentucky, and test for some Chase races at the same time. There’s no reason for them to race hard on the road courses, and it’s likely that a good number of them won’t, instead settling for a top 10 or so and going on their merry way.
A road race in the Chase, by comparison would force them to find ways to be competitive during the few regular season opportunities they have. When that happens, it would improve the overall racing. And, well, isn’t that the end goal?
It’s time for a major schedule overhaul in Sprint Cup anyway, and it just makes sense that adding two more road races each year would be better for the teams and, ultimately, for the fans. One of those races in the Chase would mean that a champion has to truly master every type of track thrown at him… and isn’t that what being a champion is about? So it’s time to stop thinking of road courses as those two races the sport just keeps hanging on to — and to start thinking of them as vital to its future.
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