Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday August 6, 2013
When the green flag falls on the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen this Sunday, one driver will make his Sprint Cup debut at the testy, 11-turn monster that is Watkins Glen.
That might seem a tall order for many making their debuts in a series, especially one as prestigious as NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. But when said driver comes from a background of road racing, be it in V8 Supercar or Australian Formula Ford competition, one figures he’s going to be alright.
Owen Kelly, a 36-year-old Australian who’s made two starts in the Nationwide Series with finishes of fifth and fourth, will start his first Cup race this weekend for Phoenix Racing, which has a history of fielding non-series regulars at the road courses (see: Jacques Villeneuve, Boris Said). Kelly, a Tasmania native, resides a mere hour’s drive from Marcos Ambrose, a longtime Cup regular who’s always a threat at the road courses.
When Kelly takes the green flag Sunday, he’ll become the first non-American to debut in the series in 2013; all others are American, plus Victor Gonzalez Jr., who hails from the American commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
He also joins a relatively short list of foreigners racing in the series, a distinction held on a full-time basis only by Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya in recent years.
In fact, while non-Americans aren’t exactly a complete rarity, running strong in NASCAR is, well, another story entirely.
The overarching point is that Kelly doesn’t have a ton to live up to. That’s not meant as a total detraction from his peers, but in thousands of Sprint Cup races, only five have been won by foreigners — six if you count Mario Andretti, who moved to the United States as a teenager and later became a naturalized citizen. Four of those wins happened on road courses. Three at Watkins Glen.
The list is short, and no tally numbers higher than two. Ambrose and Montoya are at the top, each with two wins to their Cup credits. Canadian motorsport hall-of-famer Earl Ross preceded them, taking the checkered flag at Martinsville in September 1974. Andretti, by then a naturalized American citizen, scored the Daytona 500 crown in 1967.
Over 50 other drivers have raced in NASCAR’s highest division while hailing from a foreign country, but few have been afforded the successes of Montoya, Ambrose, Andretti and Ross. There have been your occasional top-10 finishes, even dating back to the early days of the series, when Canadians like Lloyd Shaw and Albert Lemieux had strong races in the early ’50s. In 2008, the Cup rookie class was a smattering of different cultures and nationalities, with Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier and Dario Franchitti all looking to complete full-time seasons in the sport on the way to a rookie title. Only Carpentier finished in the top 10 all season.
In fact, finding a foreign-born driver who could even finish inside the top five was a tall order. In 1959, Eduardo Dibos became the first, the Peruvian finishing fifth twice. Mexico’s Pedro Rodriguez followed with another fifth-place run in 1965. Then came Ross and his win in 1974, plus five total top-five finishes.
That was it for 25 years, until another Canadian — one who will be in the field Sunday — leaped into relevance with a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen in 1999. Ron Fellows proceeded to score two more top fives after that initial showing, the last coming in 2007.
Mostly, it’s been all Montoya and Ambrose, but that’s kind of what one would expect. After all, most foreign-born NASCAR competitors haven’t received the chance to run in the series full time like Montoya and Ambrose have. Plus, there’s their longevity; Montoya’s in his seventh full season in Cup, while Ambrose has now reached his fifth.
Non-American drivers also face an uphill battle in the sense that there’s as many opportunities. The vast majority of Cup drivers are American — it’s an American sport, after all — and breaking in from the outside has proved difficult for many. Even drivers like Villeneuve, Carpentier and Franchitti, who were considered world class when they entered the sport, couldn’t make it through an entire season without woes, sponsorship or otherwise.
Of course, there’s also the simple fact that winning a NASCAR race, let alone doing well in one, is a tall order even for many of the drivers who have been racing here for years, especially when they’re not in prime equipment. In last year’s Sprint Cup season, 27 managed a top-five finish out of 74 different competitors. It’s not easy out here, no matter who you are or what kind of championships you’ve won elsewhere. Again, see Villeneuve, Carpentier and Franchitti.
That said, it’s a driver like Owen Kelly that seems like he could break the mold, becoming part of an elite club of foreign drivers that have been able to finish in the top five. He’s already shown exceptional promise in the Nationwide Series, particularly earlier this season for Joe Gibbs Racing in Kyle Busch’s normal car at Road America. He’s driving for Phoenix Racing, generally a mid-pack team but one with occasional power on all tracks. Road courses have certainly been a selling point for the organization, with Kurt Busch in particular scoring a top-five finish at Sonoma for the team last season.
These days, road ringers aren’t as prevalent in the series, and with good reason; the drivers have only gotten better on the tricky tracks, meaning that either their services aren’t required or, in the case of Fellows, they’re stuck on smaller teams without as much of a chance of running up front.
But Kelly, while not a young gun by any means, definitely comes into the race with a bit of hype given his decent showings in the Nationwide Series on road courses. If he can follow in the footsteps of his fellow countryman, who’s been lights out at Watkins Glen, maybe we’ll know there’s something in the water down under, at least something that makes The Glen a fairly easy place around which to maneuver.
Foreign-Born Drivers With Top-Five Finishes in the Sprint Cup Series
Juan Pablo Montoya – 22
Marcos Ambrose – 15
Earl Ross – 5
Ron Fellows – 3
Eduardo Dibos – 2
Pedro Rodriguez – 1
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