The lost art of ringing the road course

2014 Cup Watkins Glen Ambrose Allmendinger NKP

NASCAR is weird. Specifically, NASCAR road course trends are weird.

For most of the early 2010s, while not standing in victory lane after the checkered flag fell, road ringers – or even just full-time NASCAR drivers known for their racing prowess in right turns – were constantly vying for wins.

Chief among them was Marcos Ambrose, who scored back-to-back victories at Watkins Glen International in 2011 and 2012 (the latter in arguably one of the best finishes in NASCAR Cup Series history) after stalling then he was leading at Sonoma Raceway in 2010.

Alongside Ambrose in NASCAR’s premier series was AJ Allmendinger, who began making his mark on road courses in the early 2010s; although he often qualified well, he only broke through in 2014, when it was his turn to duel with Ambrose. This time, Allmendinger came out on top for his first career victory. Also in the same class at the same time was Juan Pablo Montoya, who alongside Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti is the only driver to have won races in the NASCAR Cup, NTT IndyCar Series and Formula 1. Montoya won few victories in his Cup career. , both on the road.

In fact, Ambrose, Allmendinger and Montoya held three of the top five spots in the Heluva Good! Glen sour cream dips.

For years, Sonoma and the Glen were the only two road courses on the schedule…that is, until NASCAR made the decision to move Charlotte Motor Speedway’s fall race to the ROVAL layout in 2018. Further road course additions followed soon after.

Strangely, despite the additions of road courses, there has been a palpable decline in road course ringers, or even just full-time drivers who excel at them, over the second half of the last decade. If nothing else, it looks like more consistent winners have started winning races against the Ambroses and Allmendingers, whose few shots to wins have come at these twisted layouts.

Road America, where the Cup Series returned in 2021 after more than six decades away, and its list of Xfinity Series winners – without a single duplicate, I might add – might be the best example.

Between 2010, when Carl Edwards won the first NXS event there, and Justin Allgaier in 2018, it reads like someone clicked multiple times on a random NASCAR name generator: Reed Sorenson, Nelson Piquet Jr., Allmendinger, Brendan Gaughan, Paul Menard, Michael McDowell, Jérémy Cléments.

Allgaier has ushered in a more conventional or consistent winning streak, followed by Christopher Bell, Austin Cindric and Kyle Busch in recent years, but that streak between Sorenson and Clements includes six drivers with five Xfinity wins or less; half of them (Piquet, McDowell and Clements) have only one.

Remember the 2010 race at Watkins Glen mentioned above where three full-time drivers, all road course specialists, made up more than half of the top five? This event as a whole might be one of the best examples of a field full of ringtones.

Also in this race: Max Papis, Patrick Carpentier, Ron Fellows, Boris Said, Andy Lally and PJ Jones. More than half of Jones’ career Cup starts have been at road courses, Said hasn’t raced at the Cup oval since 2010 and all but one of the Fellows’ 25 Cup starts have been for road races.

Granted, this race was right in the middle of a two-season stint with Germain Racing for Papis, but all of his first five finishes in the Xfinity Series were on road courses. And yes, Lally was set to drive 32 of 36 races the following season in TRG Motorsports issue 71, but his Xfinity career consisted exclusively of road appearances.

Other names spice up this era: Andrew Ranger, Chris Cook, Patrick Long, Justin Marks, Tomy Drissi, Owen Kelly, Victor Gonzalez Jr., Drew Herring. The list continues.

Oddly, the races never really happened for many of them. Maybe he wasn’t familiar with the cars and only made occasional starts, but more often than not it seemed like the ringers ended up further in the running order than expected.

The Xfinity Series seemed to be where things swung the most in the ringer and specialist ways, with Fellows (4), Said (1) and Ambrose (1) all winning at least one race in the second division of NASCAR.

After all that, things have been a bit more predictable lately – or at least the prowess of the road course has been spread out on the pitch.

Chase Elliott has 13 Cup wins, and seven of those were on tracks with left and right turns. He hasn’t won on an oval since the 2020 final, taking his two wins in 2021 at Road America and Circuit of the Americas.

His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson also won two road races last year, at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, but those were part of a 10-win campaign. Martin Truex Jr. also factors in here, with three wins at Sonoma since 2013 and an additional triumph at the Glen.

These two tracks really haven’t seen a rider known specifically for their on-road prowess since 2014 (Allmendinger in New York) and 2007 (Montoya in Wine Country). New tracks also continue to see more conventional winners in the lane of victory.

Daytona’s short-lived road course, only on NASCAR schedules for two seasons in 2020 and 21, featured no victory lane specialists. Cindric (Xfinity in 20) may be the closest, but he was as good on NXS ovals as he was on road courses, won a championship and already has a Daytona 500 win under his belt.

Road America was discussed above; as mentioned, lately the momentum has been more towards high-level cars than high-level specialists. The ROVAL featured Ryan Blaney, Elliott (twice) and Larson in victory lane, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway layout was won by Chase Briscoe and Cindric in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

The Circuit of the Americas is the joker of the peloton. Last year’s Cup race took place in the monsoon, with some violent crashes and a rain-cut finish. We legitimately don’t know how a Cup event in dry conditions will go in Austin, but should this weekend with mostly sunny weather forecast for Sunday (March 27).

With COTA, however, the field this weekend feels like a ringer/specialist roster of yore: with Cindric full-time, the field includes Allmendinger, Said, Lally, Joey Hand, Loris Hezemans and Kaz Grala.

Hand is the winner of the Sebring 12-hour race as well as the 24-hour races at Daytona and Le Mans, while Grala finished in the top 10 at the Daytona road course in his first Cup start and nearly won the Camping World Truck Series race. at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2017.

Hezemans is the newcomer, having made a few Xfinity starts but is yet to feature in Cup competition; however, he is a two-time NASCAR Whelen Euro Series champion.

Allmendinger is perhaps the only true specialist left; he won three consecutive Xfinity races at the Charlotte ROVAL, took his second Cup victory at the Indianapolis Grand Prix track last summer. However, of his 10 NXS victories, almost half have been on oval circuits.

In a sport where just 10 years ago teams like Richard Petty Motorsports and JTG Daugherty Racing seemed to be finding their best opportunities on road courses, the trends have swung almost entirely in the opposite direction.

Maybe it was the gear, maybe it was the regular winners struggling at tracks where riders like the ‘Dinger and Ambrose excelled, maybe it was a combination of the two. Who knows?

None of this is a bad thing, but it is intriguing. Maybe it’s just that it’s easier to adapt to a full skill set, with the advent of simulators and car changes, maybe it’s the recent lack of solid equipment in the Cup Series.

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