Do Road Course Ringers Still Have a Place in NASCAR?
By Cody Broder TRST Senior NASCAR Analyst Twitter: @Cody_TRST
The competition in NASCAR’s top series is at a higher level than ever before. Sure, there may have been drivers that could match up against today’s Sprint Cup Series drivers. But let’s say a Richard Petty was in the sport today. He definitely would not have won 200 races.
With Wisconsin’s Road America and California’s Sonoma (also known as Infineon) chalked up on the schedule this weekend, road course ringers will add another piece to the complex puzzle that is road course racing.
In the Nationwide Series, road course ringers stand a chance to win the races because the level of competition is lower than that in the Cup Series. Ringers have advantages over Nationwide Series regulars because road course racing is all they do for the most part. They know how to feel out the car, breaking points, and where passing points on the track are. Also, ringers do not need to points race, allowing them to be as aggressive as they want to be.
They may be going for the win, but ringers also suffer from overconfidence some of the time. Viewers have seen wrecked cars multiple times off the bumper of Jacques Villeneuve in the 2011 Nationwide Series races at both Road America and Montreal. They have also seen Boris said take out David Ragan and David Reutimann in the nasty wreck at Watkins Glen.
Ringers need to think of other drivers, especially the ones that are racing for the points title, but in the mind of a racer, the goal is always to finish in front of as many opponents as possible. This applies more toward the wreck involving Said because he was running around the back of the pack when it happened. In the case of Villeneuve, he was going for the win.
Robby Gordon is the last driver classified today as a “road course specialist” to have won in the cup series. At the time he swept both Sonoma and Watkins Glen in 2003, he was racing full time at RCR. This brings me to my next point about the large difference between ringers in the different series.
Ringers are able to be more competitive in the Nationwide Series than the Cup Series because they have better quality rides. In the top series, owners cannot afford to substitute a ringer into their car because it would put a huge damper on that driver’s points performance on the season. The rides the ringers get, normally start-and-park cars and ones that run toward the back of the pack, are not to the standard of the top teams in the sport.
In the Nationwide Series, it is different. Some of the top series’ top cars, such as Penske’s No. 22 and JGR’s No. 18 and 20, are not manned by the same drivers every week on ovals. Therefore, the owners can afford to stick a ringer in the driver’s seat because they are only going for owner’s points in the series. In that case, only the car number matters, not the person who is driving it.
With better equipment available, combined with less driver skill and less experience, we generally see ringers be more competitive on the road courses in the Nationwide Series. Compared with Gordon, who was not even a ringer at the time he won, the last time a ringer won in the highest-tier developmental series was Said at Montreal in 2010.
As we can see in the first practice session’s speeds, Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet Jr., Max Papis, Michael McDowell and Ron Fellows, all with road course racing backgrounds, were the top 5 drivers. Each of those drivers does not regularly race in the series.
Conversely, in the first Cup qualifying session, the first ringer we see on the chart who has not competed full-time in recent years is Said in 32nd position.
Road course races used to be something some teams just threw by the wayside. Now that the sport’s competition level is higher than ever, every team is forced to put their all in and dedicate themselves to get better at these race tracks, putting even more of a damper on the ringers’ chances of victory. The familiarity of the car is more important than the feel of the course some of the ringers, who must make the transition to lightweight sports cars to bulky, heavy, over-powered stock car, may have.
Ringers may be a solution for underfunded teams to bring home a decent finish with the car in one piece, but young, inexperienced drivers are not going to get any better at road course racing unless they get the experience.