Desperate times call for desperate measures, and heading into an elimination race below the cutline means a team must pull out all the stops to try to advance. It’s Hail Mary time, and sometimes an unconventional approach, such as using a road-course racing expert rather than your regular driver, might just work.
This weekend, the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series both have an elimination race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. After ending the last race 21 points below the cutline and due to his not having a ton of success on road courses, there was a thread on Reddit’s NASCAR subreddit discussing whether Austin Dillon should use AJ Allmendinger as a relief driver next week in order to advance.
The strategy behind this move is simple. Dillon would start the race so he could get credit for the points. When the first caution flag flew (there will at least be a competition caution part of the way into stage 1), Dillon would pit and Allmendinger would replace him in the No. 3 for the remainder of the race.
Dillon would get the points for wherever Allmendinger finishes in the stages and the race. If Allmendinger happened to win — his lone Cup win came at Watkins Glen International — Dillon would get credit for his fourth career win and automatically clinch a spot in the Round of 8.
This strategy would never happen — it’s too crazy, too against the grain. But it is still brilliant and gives the teams way below the cutline their best shot and maybe only shot at advancing.
After all, Dillon’s average finish in his past 10 road course races is 26.1 and his best finish is 16th twice (Watkins Glen in 2014, Sonoma Raceway in 2018). He hasn’t finished better than 23rd at the ROVAL. Those type of numbers aren’t going to advance him into the Round of 8.
Allmendinger is already the Richard Childress Racing COVID-19 substitute, so he makes the most sense, but the team could also get Kaz Grala behind the wheel of the No. 3 again. Grala filled in for Dillon when he tested positive for the virus and finished seventh in his Cup debut.
The Reddit thread singles out Dillon, but his team is not the only one that should use this strategy at the ROVAL.
In Cup, Kyle Busch is also 21 points below the cutline, but there is no road course ace you could put in the No. 18 that would give the team a better chance to score points and/or win than Busch. The defending Cup champion could pop up and win a race anywhere, anytime. But he’s also close enough where he could still points race his way in.
Clint Bowyer (38 points out) pretty much needs to win to get in, but he’s a pretty good road racer. Bowyer won at Sonoma and has finished in the top five in five of the past nine road courses. In the two ROVAL races, Bowyer has finishes of third and fourth. The problem is his Sonoma win was eight years ago and his last Cup win was over two years ago. But still, leaving Bowyer in the No. 14 for the entire race and hoping he breaks through for the win is the team’s best bet.
However, Stewart-Haas Racing should look into getting a relief driver for its other bubble driver, Aric Almirola (48 points out). Almirola basically has to win to advance. That’s a tough ask for him, though, because he’s never even had a top five on a road course. He’s finished in the top 10 at Sonoma twice (2018, 2019), and his best ROVAL finish was 14th last year.
The No. 10 team needs to put a road course ace in the car during the first caution to have any hope of advancing. SHR currently has a good road racer in Xfinity: Chase Briscoe. Two of Briscoe’s 10 career NXS wins came at road courses, including his first career win at the ROVAL. Briscoe appears to be the future of SHR, so it’d also be a solid opportunity to get his feet wet in Cup.
But an even better choice, if Team Penske allows it, would be for SHR to enlist Austin Cindric. Four of Cindric’s seven career Xfinity wins have come at road courses, and his lone Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win was at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. Not to mention Cindric has an extensive road-racing background from before he even got to NASCAR. Most teenagers get their driver’s license at age 16, while Cindric was racing in the Bathurst 12 Hour at that age.
Cindric would give the team its best shot at winning and give Almirola an opportunity to make the Round of 8. After the ROVAL, the schedule hits some tracks Almirola is really good at, so the move could potentially fuel him to the Championship 4.
Almirola’s first official Xfinity victory came at the Milwaukee Mile in 2007 when Denny Hamlin relieved him and went on to win the race. How poetic would it be for a similar situation to give him his best shot at a Cup title?
On the Xfinity side, Harrison Burton is seven points below the cutoff, which is manageable. So there’s no need for his team to try anything too crazy like a relief driver.
Brandon Brown is 19 points out, and his average road course finish is 21.9, with his best being an 11th at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course earlier this year. He could make it in if someone ahead of him had a bad day, but if his team does have a history of employing road course expert Will Rodgers, who has four road course wins across the ARCA Menards Series East and West. With only four Xfinity starts to Rodgers’ name, though, Brown is probably better off staying in the car himself, unless he found a more experienced road racer.
Riley Herbst is 36 points below the cutline and probably needs to win to advance. He has improved in each of his three Xfinity road course starts, culminating in seventh at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Herbst could improve yet again and contend for the win.
But if Joe Gibbs Racing wants to really swing for the fence to make the Round of 8, the team should bring back IMSA driver Jack Hawksworth, who drove for Joe Gibbs Racing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last year, to relieve Herbst at the first caution. He was very competitive in that race and led laps before falling back to finish 15th. Hawksworth will already be at the ROVAL for the IMSA race there, so he’d be as ready as ever.
Michael Annett rounds out the Xfinity Round of 12, 38 points below the cutline. Annett nearly won at Road America in 2017 after Jeremy Clements and Matt Tifft spun racing for the lead, but Clements hung on for the victory. But since then, Annett doesn’t have a top five at a road course, only scoring three top 10s in the last 10 road races. It’s not looking good for the No. 1 team to advance unless it turns to a relief driver.
JR Motorsports has an alliance with GMS Racing, so it could use Sheldon Creed, who led the most laps to win at the Daytona road course in Trucks this year. He also already has experience driving at road courses in Xfinity and driving for JRM, both pluses. Regan Smith is a Mid-Ohio winner in Xfinity and ran two races for JRM last year. But he struggled in both those races, so the team is probably better off leaving Annett in.
And for all of the Cup and Xfinity teams that need to go for, IMSA will be at the track at the same time. I’m sure there’s a plethora of road course ringers in that series who would love to try their hand at NASCAR at least once.
Of course, this relief driver scenario is unlikely to play out for any team. Most drivers would probably feel insulted if they were forced to get out at the first caution. And the sponsors who signed on to see a specific driver represent them might become angry seeing their driver yanked for someone else.
But the goal of racing is to win. And after you take out all of the politics surrounding these situations, there is no better move than to sub in a road course expert to give yourself a better shot at the win. And winning fixes everything, so if one of the subs were to win, the regular driver and sponsor would probably be elated to get new life in the playoffs.