Road course racing is the red-headed bastard step child of NASCAR circuits. Although they’ve existed throughout NASCAR’s long and storied history, only two circuits survive in its top series and drivers either love them or hate them.
Fans, too, feel similarly and usually side with their drivers.
The winding roads, need to turn both left and right, and strategy for running the course has always fascinated me as a spectator. It may be that my family is staunchly planted in sports cars that run primarily road courses that gives me bias, but even if that wasn’t the case, I find merit in road course racing.
To me, it separates the drivers into those that can on anything and those that can do one thing.
Yes, it’s true that running ovals are far different at Bristol than Talladega, but they’re still just turning left.
Spare me the hate mail, I’m a huge proponent of our sport, the skill, technical aspect, and human element that goes into driving the many different tracks NASCAR runs – short tracks, intermediate tracks, and superspeedways alike.
But road courses were so difficult to some drivers in the past that the dinosaur known as the “Road Course Ringer” used to be brought out twice a year when I started watching NASCAR in the early 1990s.
These hot shoes came from other forms of racing, different series, to jump into the cockpit of a Cup car to try to salvage points and perhaps win the race for a Cup regular.
The thing is, not knowing the equipment as well, and having to compete with series regulars who were by damn going to learn how to turn right as well as they turned left and master the road course, left the ringers all but extinct in the modern era.
Names like Earnhardt, Martin, and Gordon had learned to navigate the road courses and began to win races at them.
Crew chiefs and teams spent oodles of time testing at, practicing for, and researching perfect set ups and pit strategies to conquer the road course.
It was on like Donkey Kong. (Is that still a saying?)
Recently drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya, before he returned to the IndyCar Series, and now drivers like Marcos Ambrose do quite well on road courses. They have a background in it and bring the skill set.
But both Busch Brothers, working at different times with crew chief Steve Addington, have scored “W”s at road courses.
I’ve heard fans complain about how difficult it is to watch at live events. That’s true, you only get to watch a segment of the race, so perhaps television viewing is more exciting than attending live races at road courses, but I love attending races at Watkins Glen, New York. It is so picturesque and beautiful, the racing just adds to the ambiance! I’ve yet to attend a live race at Sonoma, but I can only imagine how terrific that would be, too.
Other fans say that the cars can’t run flat out, and passing is nil. To that I say, it’s just like running in traffic on Route 80 or 95 or any other main artery where traffic holds you back, passing is near difficult, and you can’t open her up. But you still get to win the race – that’s getting home safely.
Still more fans bemoan the fact that their driver doesn’t perform well at road courses.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. blatantly admitted that to the media after his win at Pocono earlier this month, his second of the season locking him into the Chase.
He was so relaxed and relieved not to have to worry about his run at Sonoma this year. He’s usually sweating the weekend trying to maintain points to set himself and the No. 88 team up to make the Chase. With that worry off the table this season, Earnhardt Jr. is actually enjoying his summer.
So, if Earnhardt Jr. hates road course racing, a lot of the fans, especially his “Junior Nation”, don’t lke it either.
But, there are several fans that root for the best of the rest regardless of their drivers prowess on the road course.
The road courses are here to stay on NASCAR’s circuit. There is always chatter of including a road course in the Chase, although no one has had the gumption to do that… yet.
Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying the road course venues, both Sonoma and The Glen this summer. And I’ll try to spot any “ringers” who hadn’t heard the Cup guys have this well -handled.
The Toyota/Save Mart 350 from Sonoma will air this Sunday, June 22nd at 3pm ET on TNT.