The Frontstretch: The Best of the Best: Why the Novelty of Road Course Racing Has Worn Off by Summer Bedgood -- Monday June 24, 2013

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Martin Truex, Jr.’s win at Sonoma last Sunday was impressive. A statement, if you will. It was well earned, though unexpected; a surprising, celebrated performance.

However, it wasn’t for the reason you might think. As we approach every single — ahem, “both” — road course races in the Sprint Cup Series each season, we are met with the same hype and expectations every year. “Road ringers” taking over midrange rides, the fact that, holy crap, guys, they’re turning right … and the whole “road course racing is completely different than oval racing” storylines dominate the pre-race discussions.

Road course racing may look different, but in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition the same drivers you see every week up front still seem to get there when turning right.

The truth is that it needs to stop. Martin Truex, Jr. won that race because he is a good driver … not because he is a good road racing driver. The same is true with Clint Bowyer, Truex’s teammate, who won this race last year. It’s why, though Truex’s win was a shock, the NASCAR community agreed that his win was well deserved. Take it from Bowyer himself:

“Super excited for Martin. It’s been a long time coming — everybody knows that. For whatever reason, he’s had this terrible luck. So, really, really proud of him, Chad (Johnston, crew chief) and everybody on the NAPA Toyota. Like I said, it’s been a long time coming. Very happy for all of them.”

Other drivers, like Brian Vickers and Carl Edwards had similar praises for Truex, and defending champion Brad Keselowski even left a six-pack of sponsor Miller Lite next to the hauler of Truex’s No. 56 team.

What, you might ask, does this “good feeling” have to do with road course racing? None. We all know Truex’s win was popular. Drivers who break winless streaks are typically meant with praise from race fans. The point is that, while Truex hadn’t won in six years, his peers believed he was a great race car driver. It wasn’t road course racing. It was racing.

However, you don’t just have to look to Victory Lane to see that the hype around these two events is just silly. Let’s just take a minute and look at the top five:

1. Martin Truex, Jr.
2. Jeff Gordon
3. Carl Edwards
4. Kurt Busch
5. Clint Bowyer

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see any “road course racers” in there. I see a combined five Sprint Cup championships, 141 victories, and counting. Those numbers hardly total up to just success at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Those are the kinds who excel everywhere, just another force to reckon with on any other given week.

If you still aren’t convinced, here is the top five from the last road course race (Watkins Glen back in August):

1. Marcos Ambrose
2. Brad Keselowski
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Clint Bowyer
5. Sam Hornish, Jr.

Again … not much argument for road course specialists. Brad Keselowski would eventually win the championship, Jimmie Johnson has five, and Bowyer has a resume full of wins in this series.

If you want to point at Ambrose as evidence of road courses being some sort of asterisk on the racing schedule, consider the fact that every driver has a racetrack that is a strength for them. Denny Hamlin is killer at places like Richmond and Pocono. They’re two very different configurations, but for some reason he excels. Greg Biffle is unbeatable at Michigan. Kasey Kahne is a constant threat in Charlotte.

The point is every driver has their strengths, and many have their strengths at certain racetracks. That doesn’t mean the usual suspects are any less of a threat to win, nor that the racetrack is some sort of zany event on the schedule. They just happen to bring with them a new set of statistics, ones that might have some different “wild cards” the others might not.

Let’s also consider the fact that Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya — two drivers who are usually bigger threats to win at The Glen and Sonoma — also have their moments outside of those racetracks. Montoya was a very realistic threat for the victory in Richmond earlier this year. Ambrose has several top 10s at tracks like Bristol and Dover, and has led 40 or more laps at tracks like Charlotte and Martinsville.

In fact, I would argue that the drivers’ experience in the Sprint Cup Series is what allows them to do well on their “strength” tracks. It’s why you have a few “wild card” drivers come into play at road courses, but none of them are ones who show up for only those two races each season. It’s why drivers who have difficulties finishing in the top 25 week-to-week won’t do well on a road course, even if that might have been their pre-NASCAR experience level.

I’m not saying road course competition isn’t different than oval racing. However, it’s “being different” doesn’t mean it brings with it a whole new series. The way it is discussed amongst even the “experts” who know better would leave you to believe that these two events provide an opportunity for new and different winners, almost as if road course racing is an exhibition race meant only to provide interesting storylines.

Jeff Gordon, the winningest active driver in the Cup Series is also the winningest active driver on road courses, with nine victories.

The fact of the matter is that these NASCAR drivers are just darn good. They are known for being some of the best in the world for a reason. It’s why the same drivers who are in contention for the championship are still just as good on road course races as they are on the “normal” ovals. It’s why when you think of the top 5 active drivers in the series, you will look at the road racing statistics and see that they are only less impressive numerically because the road races only take up a small fraction of the season. They will still have a significant amount of wins there in terms of races run and will continuously be threats to win just like if they’re running on a short track, superspeedway, or intermediate.

It’s also why those who still reject the notion of a road course being in the Chase is totally asinine. People talk of road racing not being “real racing”, which is stupid. They talk about how the road courses are too much of a “wild card” … but somehow, Talladega isn’t?

Let’s take away the fact that pure geography and accessibility pose the biggest challenge to an addition of a road course race to the Chase, and we’ll instead act like all of the necessary elements are there for NASCAR to add one in. The Chase is meant to be a playoff system — a balls to the wall, final sprint to the finish where the drivers have to prove themselves on an equal footing at a variety of racetracks to take the championship. It’s why there is a points reset. It’s why there is some night racing, some short tracks, and a superspeedway.

A road course might throw in an extra monkey wrench, yes, but all of the drivers in the Chase will already be the best of the best anyway. Why shouldn’t a road course race have a say in who wins the championship if these drivers truly are the best ones in the world?

The point is that Sunday’s type of action is not a novelty. It’s not a “wild card” — especially not to the extent that Daytona and Talladega are — and the best of the best are no different in Sonoma or Watkins Glen than anywhere else.

So congrats to Martin Truex, Jr. on his win in Sonoma. Not because it was an oh-so-challenging road course, but because he beat 42 other teams on a track that is equally as challenging as the rest. In fact, I think the focus should now be on Truex’s Chase chances later on this Fall and the potential for a NAPA “dark horse.” That’s the real “novelty” here.

BOWLES: How Truex’s Win Shakes Up The ‘Wild Card’ Picture

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Bill B
06/24/2013 07:35 AM

Good points. I can only assume it’s NASCAR’s stubborness and the fact that someone would have to lose a race in order to add a third road course race for the chase.

06/24/2013 08:47 AM

The attitude that road courses are not ‘real’ racing also totally disregards that Nascar stems from Moonshiners outrunning the law on…wait for it…actual roads. In the mountains. That go left and right! But, since Nascar can’t seem to grasp the concept of local yellows or rain tires (perhaps they should have paid attention to Le Mans this weekend), they will never grasp the logic here. Wait! Perhaps we can finagle them into it if we describe it as a ‘drive for diversity’ issue for the ‘chase’!

06/24/2013 12:20 PM

Seems that you totally disregarded the impact of the best cars and teams. Contracts make sure that the regular guys are racing the good cars. Boris Said, Ron Fellows, or Tommy Drissi weren’t going to win regardless of there talent in the cars the had. Same can be said for Marcus Ambrose.

06/24/2013 12:45 PM

Road course “ringers” used to be a force to be reckoned with but over the past 10 years the regular drivers and teams have spent far more time and effort getting the drivers road course practice and lessons from those very same “ringers”.

Road course racing is still a different discipline than oval racing. Juan Montoya’s and Marcos Ambrose’s success on the road courses is clear evidence.

I’d like to see a 3rd road course race added to the schedule. Either Road America or the course at Montreal would put on an awesome show.

06/24/2013 01:16 PM

I have to ask Summer where is all this hype coming from. Yep, you guess it! The media. Most fans that follow this series weekly know that road course ringers are a thing of the past. They may be ringers but they aren’t successful as they once were. Haven’t been for several years. Once again, its the media that fuels this.

We know you don’t like road courses. If you came up with this article to try and justify getting rid of road courses on the schedule, it came up short. There are about 10 other tracks that deserve to lose races more than the road courses. One of them is the borefest that will be Kentucky this weekend.

I almost think this win is bigger for Truex than his last one. This shows that this guy isn’t just an oval racer. He can get it done on the twisty’s and I“m sure he earned some respect in the garage as a result.

06/24/2013 01:29 PM

Summer, this was one of the most interesting races NASCAR has on the schedule and has been for several years because it is the OVALS that are overhyped from an excitement perspective.

I like watching them drive the road courses. IMO the “ringers” are a thing of the past and it showed in how they finished (and in some cases, didn’t even start).

I would like to see a road course replace Talladega. RP races are a total crapshoot as far as finishes.

06/24/2013 01:36 PM

I agree with Steve, year in and year out the week before a road course race, the media is out in full force with the same outdated lazy reporting, “road course ringers”, there has not been a “road course ringer” in YEARS! Typical Nacar media garbage.

06/24/2013 03:45 PM

I vote for Road America being added. If the Emperor refused to give up the second Pocono event, then turn that into a new lay out with the infield being used with part of the regular layout. Phoenix used to do that with IMSA and I remember seeing the Trans Am cars race that layout in 1995.

06/24/2013 06:19 PM

I’m not a big road racing fan but they are better than some of the horrible 1.5 mile cookie cutter tracks.

If they want to put a road race in the Chase, they don’t have to take a race from another track. They would just have to rearrange the schedule and switch a boring cookie cutter track that is now in the Chase with one of the road races we currently have.

06/25/2013 01:43 PM

After we take into account a host of factors listed in the footnote of this chart, road courses just aren’t very popular:

I write more about the issue here:

There’s a reason the Cup Series visits twisties only twice per year.