Did You Notice? … That for many on the Sprint Cup circuit road course racing has become an acquired skill. Sure, the quality of competition has gone up significantly in recent years; months of testing and resources are benchmarked to help series regulars at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen. We’ve seen old road course ringers like Boris Said and Ron Fellows turn into mentors and valuable resources over the past decade, helping youngsters get up to speed and set the current generation on the right path toward right-turn success. The level of substitutes and one-race ringers, the type of deals on which Said and Fellows made their careers in NASCAR have now declined to virtually zero on NASCAR’s top level. Said won’t be racing at Sonoma for the first time since 1999 and his replacement in the No. 32 Ford, Patrick Carpentier is the only driver who could be labeled with ringer status.
It’s clear this garage has come a long way with road racing skills across the board in recent years. That said, there’s still a bunch of surprising names that are winless at these two facilities. Here’s a quick look…
Brad Keselowski hasn’t taken a race win at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen. In fact, he’s yet to win on a road course in any of the sport’s top three divisions. An ankle injury suffered during a test run at Road Atlanta five years ago was also the worst of his NASCAR career to date, although it ironically jump-started his Cup Series success with Team Penske.
Matt Kenseth, another former series champ looks like an also-ran when making right turns. His first top 5 at Sonoma or Watkins Glen came last August; that’s 15 years after making his first Cup starts at either facility. In 32 career starts on the road courses Kenseth has led a grand total of just three laps.
Then there’s NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who has made a concerted effort to improve on the road courses in recent years. But while his third-place finish at Sonoma, a career best came during the 2014 season with Hendrick Motorsports, he hasn’t had the same luck at Watkins Glen. The last time Earnhardt ran fifth or better there? 2004. Only Homestead, where Earnhardt delivered a mediocre 21.5 average finish has been just as big a weakness.
There’s a few other big names on the list: Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman come to mind. The question is, how big a hole is it in their resume? How much will it matter in the grand scheme of things when we look back on each of their careers? 34 of 36 races a year in Cup are on road courses and none determine the fate of the series champion. Until NASCAR puts a right-turn race in the Chase, a playoff system the sanctioning body has shifted so much emphasis to, it’s minimized the impact of road courses. Fans may have grown more excited about these events in recent years but missing a trophy from Sonoma and the Glen on your mantle is far less worrisome. Missing the Southern 500 at Darlington or the more obvious target, February’s Daytona 500 are what keep people up at night.
With a handful of specialists like AJ Allmendinger using this race as their main focus, a chance to sneak into the postseason with a surprise win, that makes getting over the hump for the superstars who struggle at road courses even more difficult. It’s one thing to improve your skills at a short track, a plate track, places where your success or failure can ultimately determine your spot in the Final Four at Homestead. But putting extra time in for Sonoma? For some, the reward is too limited to become a true contender there.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- The Mike Wallace assault story, as told to Godwin Kelly is heartbreaking. Best wishes for a speedy physical and emotional recovery for Mike, his daughter and all those involved in the incident.
- I’ve said it before but NASCAR’s modern rule system of free passes and wavearounds becomes a big problem on road courses. There was the race years ago at Watkins Glen where Kyle Busch went five laps down, spent time in the garage and yet still wound up back on the lead lap. How ridiculous would it be if someone did that and wound up in Victory Lane? The system, designed with good intentions needs to be revisited but a good start would be for NASCAR to revisit those rules. If you go a lap down at a place where it takes over a minute to drive around, do you really deserve getting that minute-plus back just because a caution flag comes out?
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