The Frontstretch: Side By Side: Can A Road Course Ringer Really Win? by Summer Bedgood and Kevin Rutherford -- Wednesday June 19, 2013

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Side By Side: Can A Road Course Ringer Really Win?

Summer Bedgood and Kevin Rutherford · Wednesday June 19, 2013

 

Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll, and also in the comments section below!

This Week’s Question: Some teams will have “road course ringers” in the seat this weekend at Sonoma and Road America — in today’s NASCAR, can a ringer pull off a road course win?

Kevin Rutherford, Assistant Editor: Sure, A Ringer Could Win

Road course ringers, though less prevalent and noticeable in recent years, have long been a staple of NASCAR Sprint Cup visits to Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Years ago, it seemed completely conceivable for one of these ringers to pull a victory out from underneath the Cup regulars.

Not anymore. These days, imagining a Ron Fellows or Boris Said beating Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and more at a road course seems far off and unattainable.

The No. 51 will have a road course specialist behind the wheel of a car that nearly won a year ago. Can a road course ringer bring home the bacon…

But never happening? Nah.

Check out the Nationwide Series. Many of the former staples of Cup road courses moved one series down in recent years and have found success. Fellows scored the win at Montreal in 2008, beating out Cup regulars Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and more. Two years later, Said climbed to the top of the heap for the first time at the same track, barely edging Max Papis and also besting Cup stars Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

A key circumstance benefited Fellows and Said during those recent wins, a circumstance that is attainable in theory: the quality of the equipment.

In Fellows’ story, he drove for JR Motorsports, one of the series’ better teams. Said’s organization was RAB Racing (still its only victory so far), a team not quite on the level of the elite but a potential competitor when the playing field is leveled a bit, like it is at the road courses.

When the ringers drive good equipment, good things are more likely to happen.

This year, Fellows and Said are in the Circle Sport and FAS Lane Cup rides, respectively. Both cars aren’t exactly known for being able to keep up with the big boys, so no matter the talent behind the wheel, there’s still going to be a struggle.

That said, Jacques Villeneuve is in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing car. While Phoenix Racing isn’t one of the series’ best, the car was driven to a third-place finish at Sonoma by Kurt Busch last season. If given the right driver, there’s always a shot. Villeneuve has shown he can at least drive up front, though his reputation isn’t exactly too fantastic after multiple run-ins while driving for Penske in a few of the recent Nationwide road course races.

Imagine if these ringers get better rides with better teams, something kind of along the lines of Scott Pruett’s one-offs with Chip Ganassi a few years back. Fellows drove for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2009 and PPI Motorsports in the mid-2000s. If some of the road course specialists were able to attain one of these rides again, either as a substitute or via an extra car brought out by the team, is it hard to imagine them mixing it up for the win, like Fellows and Pruett have in the past?

Of course, there’s also Marcos Ambrose, and to a lesser extent, Juan Pablo Montoya. Both series regulars are threats at the road courses, especially the former, who has back-to-back wins and an average finish of second of Watkins Glen. Imagine both either semi-retiring or moving out of NASCAR and into another racing league, but returning for some one-offs — chiefly, the Cup road course events.

Just as Pruett was a Cup-regular-turned-ringer, Ambrose and Montoya would assume the same status, and with the right kind of equipment, the former in particular could be lights-out.

And consider this fact: maybe Fellows, Said and Co., while good at what they do, aren’t even the best ringers that will ever grace the sport? What if, besides Ambrose and Montoya, other specialists descend upon the series, trying their hand in a stock car against NASCAR’s best?

Once the pieces fall into place, there could sure be a lot of disgruntled Cup regulars.

Summer Bedgood, Assistant Editor: Not a Chance

If a road ringer ever wins at the Sprint Cup Series level, it’ll be because of fuel mileage or someone else screwing up big time. Even then, they will more than likely get beat by one of the more experienced strategists or another driver who was in better position to take advantage of someone else’s bad luck.

… or do the series regulars hold too big an advantage?

The truth is, statistics just aren’t behind road course ringers. Looking back several decades at the two current Sprint Cup Series road courses — Watkins Glen and Sonoma Raceway — there is not one instance of a road ringer in Victory Lane. Oh, sure, you have those drivers who excel on road courses like Robby Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Marcos Ambrose in there. But you can hardly call a driver a “road ringer” when they are full-time drivers in the series, and there are more Tony Stewarts and Jeff Gordons in the winner’s column anyway.

The success rate in the Nationwide Series is only slightly higher. Boris Said won the Montreal race in 2010 and Ron Fellows won a rain-shortened event in Montreal in 2008. There are a couple of races that were won by drivers, specifically brought in to run the road courses even though they typically run another series. Nelson Piquet, Jr. and Marcos Ambrose are two successful examples. Again, though, it’s hard to call a driver a ringer when they make regular appearances on the NASCAR schedule aside from road course races exclusively.

Should that really be so surprising, though? After all, chemistry is considered a necessity to be successful and win races in NASCAR. I don’t see how the camaraderie can be great between a driver and a team when they sit you down before Sonoma and say, “We’re replacing you this weekend because you’re simply not good enough on road courses, and we’re bringing in someone who can actually do the job this week. Oh, but by the way, we’ll put you back in the car the following Sunday.”

Call me crazy, but I don’t imagine that this exchange would go over very well. While I’m sure most drivers understand why these calls need to be made — especially if their team is in danger of missing the race — it can’t sit well with them that their team doesn’t find them capable of running well enough to drive their car that weekend.

Similarly, bringing in a driver for one race in a team, car, and series that he is otherwise unfamiliar with and expecting him to perform is unfair. It doesn’t matter how many championships, victories, top 5s, or whatever they have in other series. Jimmie Johnson can’t be dropped into the Indianapolis 500 and be expected to perform even though he’s won the Brickyard 400 four times. The reverse is also unlikely. Just ask Dario Franchitti.

The reality is that if you wouldn’t put a driver in your car, on an oval it doesn’t make a ton of sense to put him in on a road course. Sure, the possibility stands that they’ll pick up on the twists and turns of the track faster than the week-to-week driver, but if you’re looking for a win … forget about it. You’re simply wasting your time.

Meanwhile, look for a well-established race car driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to be in Victory Lane at Sonoma on Sunday.

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Thesmartestguyintheroom
06/19/2013 10:00 AM
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I’m going to side with Summer’s position here.

Let me add to the reasons why it’s not likely to happen.

1. The “road course ringers” don’t generally run full-time in any series right now. Other than Boris Said in Grand-Am, the other drivers who are drafted in-Jacques Villeneuve, Ron Fellows, Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Carpentier-are not running full-time in any series right now. Even though I imagine they stay in shape year round, there’s a difference between being in shape overall and being in racing shape.

2. They’re not being given the best equipment. Most of these drivers are being drafted in by backmarker teams. As great as they are, they can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers.

3. Most are past their prime. Ron Fellows is 53. Boris Said is 50. Carpentier, O’Connell and Villeneuve are in their 40’s.

4. The racing disciplines are different. Among the differences between Indy Cars and sports cars like Fellows, O’Connell, and Said drive and Sprint Cup cars:

Weight: a Sprint Cup car is nearly a ton heavier than an Indy Car.

Driveability: Indy cars have paddle shifters. Sprint Cup cars don’t.
Indy cars also have telemetry where you can see your speed as well as lap times. Sprint Cup cars have tachometers.

Adjustability: Indy Car drivers can adjust the weight in their car-what NASCAR parlance calls wedge- from the cockpit. NASCAR drivers cannot; they have to wait for their pit crews to do the adjustments. Indy car drivers can also set their fuel mixtures to save fuel. Sprint Cup drivers cannot do this.

5. NASCAR drivers are better road racers than they used to be. I’m going to paraphrase Mark Martin from the book “NASCAR for Dummies”, which he co-authored. In the book, Martin said that previous drivers simply viewed the road course races as throw-aways, that they didn’t really care about the races. Now, my opinion. That’s not the case these days. There are potentially 96 points on offer if a driver can win the two road course events. Those points can be the difference between winning and losing a championship; making the Chase or not or even keeping your job. Therefore, NASCAR drivers take road course racing far more seriously than drivers of the past may have. I imagine that drivers-either voluntarily or mandated by their car owners-spend time at racing schools like Skip Barber, Bondurant or others to develop and/or improve their skills for the road course races. It’s simply too important not to anymore.

As much as it pains me to admit those things-and I am not a huge NASCAR fan but I do love open-wheel and sportscar racing of all kinds, the odds are simply too stacked against a “road course ringer” winning in the top levels of NASCAR racing these days.

Hotdogger
06/19/2013 01:05 PM
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I guess Montoya could have been considered a road course ringer when he won in 2007. Even though he was a full-time Cup driver, it was only his rookie season and he’d done just around 15 races by that point.

I think if someone like Jamie Whincup tries a one-off start, he might have a good shot to win. Someone that is a champion at driving cars that are closest to a Sprint Cup car.

Thesmartestguyintheroom
06/19/2013 08:00 PM
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Whincup-Australian V8 Supercars champion from last year-might be a candidate to win. However, it would depend heavily on the type of equipment. For this week, the “road course ringers” are driving for teams below the top 35 in Sprint Cup owner points. I doubt sincerely that any driver-no matter what his/her pedigree is-could take subpar equipment and make a winner out of it unless, as Summer points out in her rebuttal, something like fuel mileage or the top drivers crash out happens.

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