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Is the Road Course Ringer Era Dead in the Sprint Cup Series?

Is the Road Course Ringer Era Dead in the Sprint Cup Series?

by August 7, 2014 0 comments

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images

In just a decade, a lot has changed with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ road course product in terms of talent on hand for each race and the strength of the field entered for each race as well.

If we look back 10 years to the 2004 running of the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, we would see six road course ringers such as Ron Fellows and Scott Pruett entered for teams like as Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing. Flash forward to the entry list for this Sunday’s running of the 355 at Watkins Glen International, only three road course ringers are listed for entry with no major team placing a them in one of their cars.

This year’s Toyota/Save Mart 350k at the Sonoma Raceway, three ringers raced in the event with Boris Said as the highest-finisher  with a 35th-place result for Go FAS Racing. In 2004’s Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, Fellows would be the highest-finishing ringer with a second-place finish for DEI. In 2004’s Toyota/Save Mart 350k, Pruett would be the highest-finishing ringer with his third-place finish for CGR.

In recent history the ringers have not proven to be nearly as successful as they were in the past. The last time a ringer (outside of series regulars who have an extensive road racing background, ie Marcos Ambrose) scored a top-10 finish at Watkins Glen was in 2009 when Max Papis scored an eighth-place finish for Germain Racing. The last time a ringer scored a top-10 at Sonoma was with Robby Gordon in 2010 when he finished second for his own team. A repeat of these performances by the ringers is long overdue, but, they may not ever come again.

A major factor in the lack of success by the ringers as of late is the fact that not many major teams with a major backing are willing to supply a car for a them. Talent can only take a driver so far if the equipment he or she is in is not quick enough to keep up with the drivers’ skill. A prime example of this would be Said’s performance at Sonoma this year. As we know, Said is an accomplished sports car driver yet could not pass his way out of the top-30 in June’s Sonoma race – his worst-ever Sonoma result where he was running at the finish.

With sponsorship in the Cup Series slowly returning (it’s not where it was prior to the 2007-08 economic decline, but it’s on the up swing), the opportunities for more drivers with a road racing background to jump over to NASCAR to run some Sprint Cup races should be on the increase, yet still no team seems to be willing to take the chance of funding a third/fourth/fifth car for a ringer. With a lack of quality rides, the ringers don’t have as many solid opportunities to make successful runs in the premier series of stock car racing.

Another thing to consider is that the strength of the Sprint Cup regulars on the road courses has increased in recent years. A decade ago, the Sprint Cup road course races were dominated by two names – Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Nowadays, the drivers who have dominated these circuits, Gordon, Stewart, and Ambrose, can no longer lead completely from start-to-finish and simply walk away with a win.

It has become more and more difficult to predict who will win at the road courses – dare I say more so than a restrictor plate race. In the last five years, 10 different drivers have won at road courses in the Sprint Cup Series – Ambrose, Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Kasey Kahne. Looking at the recent history of these circuits, it’s clear that the road courses don’t play favorites with manufacturers, engine constructors, or teams – realistically, any driver for a major team could race their way to a victory at these tracks.

With a complete shortage of no quick rides, a lack of willingness by the major teams to open up one-to-two-race rides for open-wheel and sports car drivers, and with the strength of the series regulars on the road courses continuing to grow; the era of the road course ringer may very well be dead as of 2014. However, with the sponsorship situation in NASCAR slowly getting better and with NASCAR and the IMSA’s Tudor USCC SportsCar Championship closer than ever – the status of the road course ringer in the Sprint Cup Series could certainly be resuscitated in the near future.

 

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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