(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Friday Faceoff: Who’s King of the Road Course in NASCAR?

Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon were two of NASCAR’s greatest on road courses, but 2017 marks the first season in which neither will compete at Sonoma Raceway or Watkins Glen International in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Who — if anyone — assumes the mantle of NASCAR’s best road racer in their absence?

Michael Massie: The title of active road course king is very much up for grabs, but the front runner has to be Kyle Busch for the mere fact that he has more road course wins than any other active driver, with four to his credit. AJ Allmendinger is always a guy to beat, but other than his one win at Watkins Glen, he always seems to have something go wrong that keeps him from finishing well. Denny Hamlin is giving Busch a run for his money of late. He had a rocky start to his road course career but won Watkins Glen last year and should have won Sonoma as well. Brad Keselowski will eventually emerge as the best, though, as he is currently the best driver to have never won a road race. The guy once went toe-to-toe with Marcos Ambrose two years in a row at the Glen. That is no small feat.

Amy Henderson: While I agree that Gordon and Stewart were two of the best, other than Stewart’s win last year at Sonoma (and face it, he got lucky at the right time), neither had a road course win since 2009, so I don’t think not having them in the field this weekend will be a big deal in terms of competition. The best road racers in the game right now are not likely to get recognition as such because they both drive for small teams, but if we’re looking at talent here, look no further than Allmendinger and Michael McDowell. They’re both solid road racers with recent wins in NASCAR’s top two series.  If you’re looking to the big teams, a driver near the top of the average finish list at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen is Joey Logano.  There are a few guys ahead of him at one track or the other, but not both.

Kevin Rutherford: No one. Don’t even bother here; anyone else saying otherwise is grasping for straws. There’s absolutely no one out there with the history of dominance at these tracks Gordon and Stewart had, and while a few — like Kyle Busch — might get there eventually, he’s by no means worthy of the distinction in the way Stewart and Gordon were. Plus, a lot of these so-called road course aces might be better at road courses than most, but the majority of them are sitting here with one, maybe zero Cup wins to their name. Like, come on.

The Cup Series entry list currently shows five different drivers making their series debut at Sonoma: Alon Day, Kevin O’Connell, Billy Johnson, Tommy Regan and Josh Bilicki. Should this be seen as a return of the ringer in NASCAR, or an anomaly?

Henderson: Neither.  Teams, especially those with little chance at a win, will always turn to road specialists to try to optimize their day, so it’s not an anomaly.  But when I think of the term ringer, I think of someone who has at least an outside chance to score a top 10 if not win, and that’s not the case this weekend.

Rutherford: Well, it happened a couple years ago at Sonoma, too — 2013, when four different drivers made their Cup debuts. It’s not so much an anomaly as it is something that it seems like you just sort of have to expect every couple years: an influx of drivers deciding, heck with it, let’s try out a Cup race on a road course. Billy Johnson‘s the closest to actual ringer status any of them comes, though.

Massie: Alon Day is the only one of these that makes any sense. He showed potential when he raced in the XFINITY Series. If I were a small team and I needed a road racer, I would fork up every dollar to try to bring in Juan Pablo Montoya or Marcos Ambrose over any of these guys. The fact that ringers have made a return shows that the talent level in the bottom half of the field is not what it was a few years back. The No. 43 car is a unique situation, and we will likely see Aric Almirola back in the seat for all future road races. For the rest of the cars, it makes sense to put an experienced road racer in rather than let a youngster that has little experience tear up another racecar.

The XFINITY Series holds its first race of the season this weekend that’s not held in conjunction with a Cup event. Who will rise to the occasion with the Cup regulars gone?

Rutherford: It sure isn’t going to be an XFINITY regular. I’m looking at drivers like Sam Hornish Jr., who returns to Team Penske this weekend for his first of just three scheduled starts in the series this year and has a lot to prove in a short amount of time. Or, you know, one of the Joe Gibbs Racing young guns, Christopher Bell and Kyle Benjamin. I want to see an XFINITY regular actually win a race in their own series as much as the next person, but this weekend isn’t going to be their race.

Massie: No Cup drivers are in this race? How ever will the series survive? Oh, wait, Iowa Speedway always provides two of the best races of the season because you don’t have Cup drivers, pit crews and spotters stealing candy from the babies. The favorite for the race has to be Sam Hornish Jr. in his return to Team Penske. He has won at Iowa in two of the past three years, and he did not race there at all in the only one of those seasons where he did not win. As for the full-time regulars, JR Motorsports has a great shot at reaching Victory Lane with either Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier or William Byron (Michael Annett, meanwhile, is lucky to have a job).

Henderson:  Sadler will make sure he gets a post-race interview this week –in Victory Lane.  The veteran driver has a win at Iowa as well as a fifth-place average over 12 starts. Sadler is also the series point leader, so look for him to capitalize on a weekend where it’s all about the regulars.

The Camping World Truck Series field at Gateway Motorsports Park was close to full last Saturday, but seven of those trucks were parked by the end of the first stage. What can NASCAR do to encourage growth in that series while helping teams cut costs?

Henderson:  I’ve long advocated a spending cap as the way to create great competition in NASCAR’s national divisions because that’s the best way to put racing in the hands of the drivers, and when drivers rise to the top on merit, sponsorship will follow.  Another thing that needs to happen is higher purses to help pay the bills, but NASCAR needs to find a way to make that happen without increasing the already prohibitive sanctioning fees for tracks. Which leads to my third item, and the one that would be easiest to implement: take the series back to what it was originally meant to be.  That means a short-track series based mostly in the Southeast.  Sure, race with the Cup Series at tracks like Bristol Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, even New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but get the trucks off the intermediate tracks where money rules and take them back to the short tracks where the driver is a bigger part of the program than aero.

Massie: For years, I have been saying that NASCAR needs to implement a spending cap for each team’s entries in all three of the top levels. Now, it is more apparent than ever that a cap is needed. Placing a spending cap will limit what the giant teams are able to spend on equipment and research & development. In turn, those teams will not have to ask for so much from sponsors, and the smaller teams will not have to spend every dime trying to keep up. It will take a lot of planning to start and enforce a cap system, but if NASCAR can figure out charters then it can figure out this as well. Something else that could help the Truck Series is prohibiting Cup teams from supplying Truck teams with equipment. You cannot win in Trucks if you don’t have an engine from Roush-Yates, Earnhardt-Childress or Gibbs. Teams are throwing out tons of money to have these top of the line parts. It creates a competition gap and a money pit.

Rutherford: For years, I’ve advocated… haha, just kidding, not putting you through the same spiel. Agree with above. Same with different tracks, for that matter. Are any of y’all actually enjoying these Truck races at places like Michigan? Like, really? I’d really love to hear the rationale from someone who likes watching these races at tracks like Michigan or Texas, not because I think you’re crazy per se, but because I truly just want to understand it, you know? Come on, look up on YouTube (because so many old races are on there at this point, it kind of rules) some of the races at Lucas Oil Raceway, Fairgrounds Speedway, places like that. NASCAR isn’t going to make as much money there as it would if a place like Texas was a full-capacity crowd, but come on, will it ever be?

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Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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One comment

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    This is one of those rare instances where I have to give NASCAR credit for something they did in the last decade. They added more road courses to the Busch schedule and as a result, many of today’s drivers who have risen through the ranks are simply more proficient. I know the original intent was to boost international interest with the races at Mexico City and Montreal and while those stops are off the schedule, they’ve added other road course stops. Long gone are the days where many drivers considered the day successful if they stayed on the course and scored a Top 20 finish.