Is it me, or are NASCAR drivers – as a whole – becoming more proficient on road courses? There was a time, many years ago, when you could count the number of truly solid (as in “with a realistic chance to win”) road course drivers in NASCAR on one hand. If a race was scheduled at Riverside, let’s say, the list of frontrunners could be pared down to a handful of the usual suspects: the strongest competitors in the field would be drivers like Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd and Tim Richmond. Most often, there would be complaints from the rest of the lineup; someone like Jimmy Spencer would declare that road courses were a waste of time, a reporter would quote “Mr. Excitement” in their story, and the debate would go public once again – did NASCAR belong on a twisting-and-turning layout better suited to sports cars than stock cars? It appears that now, given the level of competition we regularly see at tracks such as Watkins Glen and Sears Point/Infineon, the answer is undoubtedly “yes”.
That’s not to say that “ringers” aren’t still brought in to sweeten the deal at road course events in NASCAR. Consider the performances by road warriors like Ron Fellows, Jacques Villeneuve, and Andrew Ranger this past weekend in Wisconsin, and you can see that the threats posed by such “specialists” are very real. Fellows has been a force to reckon with in Sprint Cup road course events for years, so his run at Road America came as no big surprise, but it seems that having Cup races at the Glen and at Sonoma for so long has rendered the need for “hired guns” to be little more than a trend from the past. Today’s Sprint Cup regulars are able to run road courses with the same consistency that they enjoy on ovals of varying lengths, and that’s what made Sunday’s race at Infineon so interesting.
That’s not to say there still aren’t “purists” out there who moan and roll their eyes every time they see a Cup car with its fuel filler/dry break on the right side. There are fans who continue to grumble about road courses on the schedule and how such races have no right to be tossed in among “real” NASCAR events on high-banked superspeedways and gut-wrenching short tracks. Never mind that road races have been a part of NASCAR since NASCAR became NASCAR…the point is that the challenge of running a road course is actually a welcome respite from the “same ol’, same ol’” of the turn-left nature of the NASCAR traveling show. For many drivers, running a road course (and running it well) is a novel means by which to showcase their talents and their versatility.
Sure, you’ve got drivers like Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya who come from a more “traditional”, road course-oriented background, but you’ve also got drivers like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart who cut their teeth on short tracks all across the Midwest; each of these racers can handle the demands of a road course, and each of them is a regular threat to win when running in the Wine Country of either California or upstate New York. Look at the drivers who ran well in the Cup race in Sonoma on Sunday and you’ll see some atypical “road warrior” names; in the top-ten on Sunday afternoon were drivers like: Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Martin Truex, Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch (who thoroughly trounced the field en route to his first career road course victory). When you consider that Busch and Keselowski both drive for Roger Penske, a car owner who – in his own right – was a competitive driver on road courses (and in a stock car, no less), you can ponder how fate and fortune aligned to produce the outcome of Sunday’s race.
Not that destiny, fate, and fortune have all that much to do with a team’s results on a road course like Infineon or Watkins Glen. Much of the credit goes to better cars driven by more prepared drivers. Back in the “good old days” when the Cup cars would run a road course, you could expect to see lots of mangled transmissions, blown engines, shredded tires, and burned-up brakes. Using a Jerico transmission reduced the need for using the clutch, but even then there could be problems with wear and tear. Even when teams built a car especially for use on a road course, the parts and pieces often could not hold up under the demands of such racing; toss in the often-oppressive weather conditions of summer, and you’d see more than tempers overheating as the laps unwound.
I can remember watching Cup races at Watkins Glen back during the 1980s, right at the time when the then-Winston Cup Series returned to the Finger Lakes Region. Those races seemed to be all about survival. A road course ringer like Tommy Kendall might be brought in to help protect a team’s chances at making it to the checkered flag and snagging a decent finish, but even that strategy was far from perfect. The drivers who experienced mechanical problems with engines, brakes, and transmissions typically drove their cars like they would on a short track, because that was more familiar to them when it came to driving a stock car. The NASCAR “regulars” who consistently ran well on road courses (see names like Tim Richmond, Rusty Wallace, and Ricky Rudd listed above), on the other hand, did so because they could conserve and finesse their equipment through careful shifting and braking (fuel conservation skills were also helpful). Today’s Cup cars, twenty-five years removed from the days of Tim Richmond in Victory Lane at the Glen, are far better in terms of their components and their overall durability. A little engineering and some advanced, technological development goes a long way.
Basic parts are simply better made from better materials than ever before. Brakes and tires have been designed and manufactured to withstand the demands of road course torture, as have transmission and engine pieces. As technology has allowed for newer developments, those developments have found their way onto NASCAR race cars. We’ve seen more durable and more consistent elements in competition over the past few years, perhaps as part of NASCAR’s transition toward the Car of Tomorrow, which have resulted in fewer, overall DNFs across the sport. As teams learn how to better manage and manipulate the parts and pieces available to them, we’ll continue to see stronger, more consistent, and more durable stock cars in competition at NASCAR events everywhere, not just on the tough-to-tame road courses.
Drivers, too, have become more consistent in competition on road courses. There was a time when drivers regarded road races as necessary evils – something you had to do if you hoped to stay alive in the point standings (see the Jimmy Spencer reference above). Testing at a road course was a way to gain valuable experience, but such efforts often gave way to more “relevant” test sessions at tracks deemed more important to the team’s success; if you had to choose between running a test at Martinsville (in nearby Virginia, with two events each season), as opposed to a test at Watkins Glen (in upstate New York, which hosted one race each year), the short track closer to home would typically win out. As such, drivers often found themselves thinking about road courses only as the races approached on the schedule.
Enter video gaming and its detailed depiction of NASCAR competition. With the advent of video game technology, and its attention to realistic depictions of actual tracks and car configuration, drivers could now “practice” on road courses from the comfort of their own homes. I recall reading an interview with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. once in which he explained how he used a version of EA Sports’ NASCAR game to “learn” how to drive at Watkins Glen. The realistic nature of the game, with its attention to minute detail about the track surface, the surrounding landscape, and the way the “track” placed demands on the mechanical and structural dynamics of his “car”, helped Earnhardt to better understand what was needed to make solid and consistent laps around the facility. Given the youthful age of so many current Sprint Cup drivers, it seems logical to conclude that other racers are making use of such opportunities.
If a video game enables you to “see” and “feel” the unique features of a road course that is otherwise unfamiliar to you, why not try and learn how to virtually “drive” the layout so as better understand the track’s unique qualities and to identify its proper braking and shifting points? Not to say that this theory explains why so many more Cup drivers seem so better suited to running road courses, but this may be another means by which to rationalize the improved performances we’ve seen from Sprint Cup “regulars” at such events.
That’s not to say that “road warriors” like Ron Fellows, P.J. Jones, Brian Simo and Andy Pilgrim will be out of work when NASCAR swings into Sonoma or Watkins Glen; they’ll simply discover that their unique driving talents won’t seem so unique any more. A “hired gun” on the road courses may help stack the deck a little bit, but putting an experienced road racer behind the wheel is becoming less essential in NASCAR. Better race cars driven by more practiced drivers on more familiar tracks is keeping the competition closer to home. We’ll see more of the same when the Cup cars arrive at Watkins Glen in a few weeks. A few ringers will be on the entry list, but their appearance at the Glen won’t guarantee success when matched against a more experienced and more confident field of full-timers driving more reliable and more durable machines.
We now enter an interesting portion of the Sprint Cup schedule – a July return to restrictor plate/tandem draft racing at Daytona this weekend, followed by the brand new race at Kentucky. Follow that up with a trip north to New Hampshire, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, a second stop at Pocono, another road course race at Watkins Glen, and a return visit to the Irish Hills of Michigan, and questions regarding the field for the Chase may be promptly answered. This stretch of races can make-or-break a team’s consistency and endurance – both of which are wildly necessary if that team hopes to be part of the “post-season” picture.
Here’s to a safe and happy July 4th…
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