Did You Notice?… The road course ringer era is over? Just two right-turn “subs” are on the list for Sonoma: Boris Said for GO FAS Racing and Alex Kennedy for Circle Sport. Said, driving the No. 32, has been in that position for years while Kennedy is a bit of a stretch, considered somewhat of a road course specialist but running a limited schedule on ovals for the team he’s with.
It appears that after years of spending money on “experts,” the smaller teams have figured out a driver without experience in these cars rarely yields better results. Gone are the days of the 1990s and early 2000s, where driver skill made such a difference a guy like Ron Fellows could jump in a middling car, manhandle it towards the front and challenge for a rare road course upset. Fellows, now 54 years of age, couldn’t even land a ride this year, using excuses like sponsor conflicts and involvement with NASCAR’s Canadian Tire Series as reasons why he won’t be spending two weekends moonlighting in Sprint Cup.
But keen observers know the truth, while statisticians know the results: Fellows hasn’t posted a top 10 on the Cup level in seven years. It seems the learning curve, rising each year at venues with these Sprint Cup cars and situations, has become too much for even the most skilled drivers to overcome. Another example, if you need one, is Juan Pablo Montoya, who despite his pick of races with Roger Penske’s third Cup team and a week off IndyCar decided to back off running either Sonoma or Watkins Glen. Montoya, who was a step behind his two teammates last weekend at Michigan, would be running with a part-time effort, which is always tougher to get up to speed when you’re dealing with new chemistry, equipment that’s been sitting in the shop and adjusting to a whole new set of rules and regulations. It’s a difficult enough task on an oval, but a road course? In which you need to learn the “feel” of the car, now markedly different from any other (IndyCars, sports cars, etc.) while dealing with second-rate equipment that starts off a few tenths behind NASCAR’s top tier? No wonder why car owners are deciding not to waste their money.
If the sport still had a 50-car entry list, putting a premium on qualifying within a 43-car field, I think you still might see guys like Scott Pruett, Fellows, or even an Andy Lally pop up a time or two. But all entered at Sonoma are guaranteed to make the grid, meaning the difference between 35th for these lower-tier cars and 25th with a better driver just isn’t enough to make a move. Heck, the difference between 36th and 35th last weekend at Michigan was only $55 in the prize payout. Would you hire a one-time replacement for potentially thousands more when the difference in finishing position is that small? Add the growing level of confidence in full-time Sprint Cup drivers, many of whom were trained by the ringers they now send to the sidelines, and it’s not like these sports car, IndyCar, or K&N veterans are picking off a bunch of amateurs.
What’s interesting is the road course ringer phenomenon is slower to die in the Nationwide Series, where several are entered in top-rate equipment over at Road America. Among them: Andy Lally, Alex Tagliani, and Kenny Habul. Perhaps the most interesting of those is Habul, whose position with Sun1 Energy allowed him to bring sponsorship to Joe Gibbs Racing. These days, driving great equipment lends credence to a simple theory: no driver wants to take a ride where their best effort is 20th place. They all want to win, put themselves in position to do so and take the best opportunity available. Similar to Sam Hornish, Jr. running a limited schedule with JGR, where winning is a distinct possibility every time out in the Nationwide Series, they’d all take a top-5 effort there instead of spending their time out of the spotlight, off the TV cameras and fighting for 35th.
So rest in peace, road course ringers on the Cup level. Boris and the Said Heads will do their best to represent, but the team he’s with was dead last at Michigan and hasn’t cracked the top 25 outside of Daytona and Talladega in 2014. He’ll have to work overtime to crack their season best, a 20th in this year’s Daytona 500.
The rest of Said’s peers? They’re sitting at home with the same thought everyone seems to have in this whole equation: why bother?
Did You Notice?… Old dogs can still learn new tricks? In the midst of a Truck Series season defined by short fields and Kyle Busch domination, one of the sport’s more intriguing stories is developing. Ron Hornaday, Jr., who at the beginning of this year didn’t even have a full-time ride, is sitting third in the championship standings, posting five top-10 results and an average finish of 9.0. By far, it’s his best effort since the last time he won the Truck Series title, in 2009. Keep in mind he’s driving for a team, in Turner Scott Motorsports that’s experienced and been in these type of point fights before.
To get over the hump, Hornaday must still pass the Thorsport entries of Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter, two trucks that have filled the void whenever Kyle Busch takes the weekend off. But Crafton has had his share of bad luck, with two wrecks in the last three races, and Sauter has a history of turning inconsistent. There’s a chance here that Hornaday, at age 56, could battle to become the oldest champion ever crowned in any of the sport’s top three series.
Officials would certainly like to see Saturday’s winner Darrell Wallace, Jr., the first African-American to win two races within NASCAR’s top three series, make a title run instead. Fresh faces, as we discuss in this space, often are what’s needed within a sport that has shown plenty of the same old story over the last decade. But for Hornaday, the vibe seems different. It’s one of those “athlete left for dead” stories, where everyone expects a 50-something to fade off into the sunset the same way drivers have done throughout NASCAR history. Retired from full-time driving by age 55? The list includes Harry Gant, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, and yes, even the physically fit Mark Martin. It’s not easy to keep adapting to the shifting landscape of NASCAR these days, where engineering knowledge and understanding the way a chassis performs becomes just as important a part of a driver’s skill set.
Hornaday has done so, fighting back from pink slips and sliding back into a ride where a team believes in his ability. Already a future Hall of Famer, armed with a record-setting list of Truck Series accomplishments, this talented final chapter would truly be the cherry on top.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…
– Think the road courses are predictable? Sonoma has given us nine winners in the last nine years we’ve visited wine country out in California. Here’s the list: Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, and Martin Truex, Jr. Of that group, four have yet to win this season and are entered in Sunday’s race. And that doesn’t include Marcos Ambrose, multiple-time Watkins Glen winner who has also come so close at Sonoma only to fall just short based on an ill-timed attempt to save fuel. Driving his former No. 47 car this weekend? AJ Allmendinger, another “expert” on road courses from his days driving Champ Car. Outside of Daytona next month, this race is your best chance for an upset winner and I have a feeling Sunday won’t disappoint. (My bet’s on Truex, actually, to spring a big surprise).
– How must Ryan Newman feel about Carl Edwards turning down a ride at Richard Childress Racing? Yes, if you’re RCR and a top-tier free agent like Edwards is on the market, you have to chat with him. But in reality, should Childress actually believe in Newman’s ability there’s no room at the inn long-term. Ty and Austin Dillon will have two of the team’s four Cup rides by 2016, while Paul Menard and his dad’s money will occupy the third. Should Edwards have slotted in the fourth ride… well, let’s just say it wouldn’t have been a one-year contract. Already, Newman would find himself a “lame duck” eighteen months before his contract would be cut off. Isn’t that why he left Stewart-Haas Racing in the first place? To avoid being the “fill-in” option? Yet that’s exactly how it feels nearly halfway into a season he sits without a top-5 finish.