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It’s that time of year again, NASCAR fans, where the Sprint Cup Series travels to wine country for the first of two road course races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California. And, yes, that means there are the presence of road-course “ringers”, which have become just as much a part of the NASCAR landscape as Martinsville Chili Dogs. This year, there are six “ringers” being brought in solely for this race, in order to give their respective owners a solid points day. These drivers are Tony Ave, Tomy Drissi, P.J. Jones, Andy Pilgrim, Boris Said, and Brian Simo. This does not include NASCAR regulars such as Juan Pablo Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, and others who have been full-time in the Sprint Cup Series for many years now. In today’s “Shakedown Session”, we will analyze these six drivers and provide some background on their vast road-racing experience.
The first driver to cover is Tony Ave. Ave is a veteran of Grand-Am, Formula Atlantic, and Trans Am competition with a trio of Indy Lights starts in 1993 and one in the Indy Pro Series in 2003. Ave made his NASCAR debut at Watkins Glen in 2004, where he retired from the race early. Such has been the pattern for Ave’s NASCAR foray, for the most part. However, at Road America last year, he had a Top 10 run going until a spin on the final lap bumped him out of the top 10. This week, he will be piloting the #38 Long John Silver’s Ford for Front Row Motorsports, usually driven by Travis Kvapil, in order to possibly work the #38 team into a top 35 points position.
Next on the list is NASCAR newcomer Tomy Drissi, who finds himself in the #37 Max Q Motorsports-leased entry as part of an alliance with Rick Ware Racing to have him race in selected NASCAR road course races and possibly even a few oval tracks this year. Drissi has competed in the ALMS (American Le Mans Series), Trans-Am, SPEED World Challenge, and vintage racing circuits. His trip to Sonoma this week will mark the potential first career NASCAR start for Drissi, provided he can make the race on speed.
A NASCAR road-course main-stay over the years has been P.J. Jones, the son of Indy racing legend & NASCAR race winner Parnelli Jones. P.J. has competed off and on in NASCAR circles since 1993 with a best finish of 4th in A.J. Foyt’s Conseco Pontiac at Watkins Glen in 2002. He has also run sporadically in the NASCAR Busch/Nationwide Series and in the Camping World Truck Series with some mild success along with Indy Car, Champ Car, IMSA GT, & ALMS experience. He also has a 1993 24 Hours of Daytona win to his credit in the IMSA GT series driving for the All American Racers team. This weekend, he is in the second Robby Gordon Motorsports entry, likely to start and park.
Another driver vying for his Sprint Cup Series debut this weekend is Andy Pilgrim of Nottingham, England. Pilgrim got his start in the IMSA Renault Cup entry-level series before making his first 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in 1996. He joined the Chevrolet Corvette factory team in 1999. In 2001, he was a co-driver with the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Daytona 24 in a Doran-Pontiac. After the race, Dale Sr. promised to put Andy Pilgrim in one of his cars, but unfortunately, Earnhardt Sr. lost his life at Daytona one week later and that promise was put on hold. But Dale Jr. did not forget his father’s promise and six years later, signed Pilgrim to drive in a pair of road course events in the Nationwide Series for his Jr. Motorsports team. He is also the 2002 SPEED World Challenge driver’s champion. This weekend, he will be piloting the #46 Whitney Motorsports entry and is rumored to be going the full distance this weekend.
Next is a driver with a bit of a cult following in NASCAR, with fans adorning wigs in his honor and calling themselves “Said-Heads” in Boris Said. Boris has quite the road racing acumen and is usually considered to be a legitimate contender for victory at these type of races. He was the 1988 SCCA Rookie of the Year and ran in IMSA competition for a number of years. He was the 1997 & 1998 24 Hours of Daytona winner and in 1998 won the 12 Hours of Sebring. He is also the first American to win at the 24 Hours of Nurburgring back in 2005 with co-drivers Pedro Lamy, Duncan Huisman, and Andy Priaulx. He has also competed off and on in NASCAR since 1995 with a Truck Series win at Infineon and last year winning the Nationwide Series race at Cirxuit Gillies Villeneuve. His best Sprint Cup finish was a 3rd place finish at Watkins Glen back in 2005. This week, he takes Landon Cassill’s place in the #51 Phoenix Racing entry to try and become the first “ringer” to win a NASCAR race since Mark Donohue in 1973 at Riverside.
The last ringer is a veteran of Trans-Am competition and the creator of the No Fear clothing line in Brian Simo. Simo has run sporadically in NASCAR road course events since 2000, driving for such diverse teams as Donlavey Racing and Richard Childress Racing, for whom he earned his lone Sprint Cup top 10 for back in 2005 at Infineon. This week, his task is to get the #81 Whitney Motorsports entry into the starting grid and, like team-mate Andy Pilgrim, word is that the #81 will be attempting the full distance.
While these ringers take a lot of flak from some segments of the NASCAR fan-base that loathe road course competition, it’s not as if they do not have the credentials to compete against the best stock car drivers in the world. And while it’s been nearly 40 years since a “ringer” won a NASCAR road course event, it does not stop these guys from trying to buck that trend. Will one of them rewrite history this weekend? Only time will tell.