It’s been a slow descent for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series from having bona fide, competitive road course ringers entered in its events at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International, to continuing to buy into the illusion that said ringers still had a shot at a top five, let alone a win, at one of those races, to now, where we barely even talk about them, because not only do they barely exist on the Cup level these days, they’re also very rarely going to be part of the conversation come Sunday.
Sure enough, the era of road course specialists in the Cup Series has indeed ended. Long live it? Nah? OK.
The shift can be chalked up to a few tenets, among them the simple fact that much of the series’ roster has gotten much better at turning right than they used to be. There’s also a smaller stable of available rides for outsiders to slot into, plus the insistence of many sponsors to have their driver in their ride no matter what, meaning you might not get a ringer in for an otherwise subpar road racer because of the marketing built up around said driver even if he or she is probably going to finish 30th or worse.
When the series visits Sonoma this weekend, either two or three teams (depending on who qualifies for the race) will have new drivers who’ve not yet set foot in their cars in 2016. It’s tempting to call them ringers, and that’s because at least one of them is: Patrick Carpentier, the on-again, off-again retiree and former open wheel standout, will attempt his first NASCAR race since 2012 when he straps into Go FAS Racing’s No. 32. Then there are Cody Ware (Premium Motorsports‘ No. 55) and Dylan Lupton (BK Racing‘s No. 93), both of whom have road racing backgrounds but have also been mainstays on the oval tracks in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series the last few years; they’ll both look to make their Cup debut, and at least one will, given the 41-car entry list.
The thing about all three is not that they’re expected to perform horribly. On the contrary, all three have shots at respectable runs despite running in equipment that is considered among, let’s say, the third tier in the series, generally outside the top 20 or even further back than that. But is anyone out there expecting Ware, Lupton or even Carpentier to contend for a win out in California? Doubtful.
And that’s what’s changed. Even a few years ago, you could count on there to be some conversation around Boris Said or Ron Fellows as potential spoilers, even if the teams for which they were driving were often subpar. It was similar to how if, say, Mike Wallace was entered in a restrictor plate race, you thought, “Well, don’t count him out,” since Wallace had a solid track record of getting the most out of his often-underfunded equipment at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. Drivers like David Ragan and David Gilliland continue to carry that torch.
What’s interesting about all this is that, really, there hasn’t been a competitive ringer in the series in quite some time. It’s been six years since one even finished in the top 10, a feat last accomplished by Said at Sonoma in 2010 while driving for the short-lived Latitude 43 Motorsports and its No. 26. Since then, the best stands to be Max Papis’ 15th-place run at Watkins Glen in 2013 while filling in for the injured Tony Stewart in his No. 14.
Otherwise, in the 2010s, you’re looking at a lot of runs in the 20s or 30s. There are the outliers, like Said’s pair of top 20s (the other an 18th-place showing at Sonoma in 2013), Jan Magnussen’s only NASCAR start (which ended in 12th at Sonoma in 2010 while driving for James Finch’s No. 09) and Andy Lally’s 18th at Watkins Glen in 2010. There are a few more that went 40th or below, either due to misfortune or, as was sometimes the case with PJ Jones at the twilight of his part-time NASCAR career, a start-and-park for, say, Robby Gordon Motorsports.
In the last 10 years, only six drivers that one might consider a road course ringer in that particular season has finished inside the top 10. It’s important to note that these are drivers someone could consider, because there can be the occasional gray area. For instance, if he’s included, the best showing belongs to Marcos Ambrose, who finished third at Watkins Glen in 2008 in just his third series start. Well, was he a ringer, though? By then, the Tasmanian driver was gearing up for a 2009 full-time run, and he ended up driving 11 races that season and DNQing for one more. Both of his road course starts came for Wood Bros. Racing’s No. 21, a car that fielded multiple drivers in the 2008 season, so he just may count.
So if Ambrose is exempt here, that means only three drivers have finished inside the top 10 in the last 10 years that were considered ringers at the time. Said’s one of them, of course, as mentioned before — and in addition to that eighth-place run in 2010, he also came home ninth twice at Sonoma, in 2006 and 2007.
The other two? Ron Fellows, who finished fourth at Watkins Glen in 2007, and Scott Pruett, a fifth-place finisher in 2006 at the same track.
Other recent highlights include Carpentier’s 11th-place run at Sonoma in 2009 and PJ Jones’ 12th at Sonoma in 2007.
Where will Carpentier, Ware and Lupton fall on Sunday? Realistically, it’ll be a battle just to get inside the top 20, which tends to be something of a win for the teams for which they’re driving these days. And that’s fine; no one says they have to light the racing world on fire in Napa Valley.
Just as long as we’re clear: the road course ringer era is over and done with in the Sprint Cup Series, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise come Sunday.