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Bowles-Eye View: Road-Course Ringers Running Short On Wins

Max Papis. Brian Simo. Ron Fellows. This weekend, some of the most accomplished road racing veterans will once again descend upon Infineon Raceway in a stock car, looking to translate success from other series into an upset victory on their biannual tour around the Sprint Cup circuit. There’s just one problem; barring a miracle, every single one of them will come up short. But that doesn’t stop the same continuous cycle of hope turned hopeless, as each one embarks on a quest for a rather unlikely trip to the top rung of stock car racing’s highest ladder – complete with an assist from NASCAR teams willing to hire them.

Or are they?

In looking at the entry list this week, I’m noticing a trend; slowly but surely, the number of ringers is dwindling significantly with each passing year. This weekend, just four will attempt to qualify on the 1.99-mile twists and turns of Infineon Raceway: Boris Said will join the three listed above, taking a stab at qualifying with his single-car No. 60 No Fear Ford operation. That number of just four ringers is 43% less from last year’s total of seven and down 56% from the 2006 total of nine. It’s a downward spiral that – based on the current system – I don’t expect it to go up again anytime soon. Especially when you look at the stats; no part-time driver has captured a race at Infineon since the series began racing here in 1989.

Road-Course Ringer Success At Infineon

Driver Starts Wins Top 5 Top 10 Average Finish
Boris Said 8 0 0 4 17.6
Ron Fellows 6 0 0 2 21.7
Brian Simo 3 0 0 1 29.3
Scott Pruett* 6 0 1 1 29.8

* Not Entered This Weekend

But the stats don’t mean men like Fellows, Said, Papis and Simo are any less talented; on the contrary, they continue to brush up their skills during off time, with Said becoming a successful driver/coach at road course testing for organizations like Gillett Evernham Motorsports. So, why is it getting harder for these specialists to get the rides they need and – most important of all – succeed in them?

The answer’s not as complicated as you think. Nowadays, it’s near-impossible for these guys to snag the seat of a top-tier Sprint Cup ride, especially for just two special races a year. For those multi-car organizations focused on the Chase and not the race, they’re unwilling to take the time to start up a limited, part-time car for a few road-course specialists. And why would you substitute out a guy like Kasey Kahne – in championship contention – with a Scott Pruett, just because Kahne isn’t a good road racer? The answer is you can’t; points mean everything nowadays, and missing a race is pretty much the equivalent of missing the Chase.

All that leaves the ringers fighting for the scraps at the bottom of the Sprint Cup pile. Over there, there’s plenty of options; with the advent of the Top-35 rule, road-course ringers have become an attractive solution to teams that are struggling, not shining. They’re just not attractive opportunities for the drivers themselves; but nonetheless, all four of this year’s Road Ringer Class of 2008 has become aligned with teams 30th or worse in the owner standings.

That does allow the ringers to serve a larger purpose, working with cars attempting to bump their way back into a “locked-in” spot through a strong, one-race performance. But while these teams are more than willing to hand over the keys to the castle, they’re not always the perfect fit to ignite a surprising turnaround. There’s a reason these organizations are struggling so much to begin with, and it’s not just because of the driver; both the equipment and the crew are a step behind the rest of the competition. Of course, that puts these one-time substitute drivers in an uncomfortable spot; it’s hard to utilize years of experience to make up for a car that starts the race at a serious disadvantage. Fellows went through the most notable of these types of scenarios; two years ago, Cal Wells built a road-course car specifically tailored to the man’s liking, only to watch his struggling No. 32 operation suffer through a mechanical failure that made his extra investment a complete waste of time. It didn’t matter whether it was Fellows or regular driver Travis Kvapil driving that car on the day; either one would have finished far off the pace, many laps behind the race leader.

Still, these drivers press on, their love for road courses overshadows the dwindling opportunities they may have to show their skills. But the end result is both a driver and a car will be put in a position where they have to force the issue; and for people who drive these things as little as twice a year, that’s not going to work out so well. As it is, so much has to go right in order to win a Sprint Cup race these days; you need to have a flawless performance, whether it’s coming up the gears through a restart or making sure you hold your line coming down pit road. Just think of how many speeding penalties drivers have been docked with these last few weeks; and surviving the stop itself without a mistake is a bit of a challenge in its own right, especially for a one-time visitor not used to the “radar” watching his speed.

All of these obstacles make it near-impossible for any of the ringers to come out, guns blazing, and finally turn their teams’ seasons around. And when you need to shell out a ton of cash just to hire these guys for a one-race gamble – why is it even worth the risk? Drivers like Regan Smith, Jason Leffler and John Andretti may not have the road-racing background; but they have both the consistency of being in the car every week and the experience of racing at the stock car level on their side. You’re not losing much by keeping them your regular driver for the weekend; and if you make the race, you’ve saved yourself tons of cash while never risking that delicate balance of chemistry between your regular driver and the rest of your crew.

No question about it, that’s enough in my book to outweigh the benefits of road-course ringers whose time may quickly be passing by.

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