NASCAR’s “road race ringers” are a dying breed

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It’s a shame to have to write, but much as “oval specialists” in the Verizon IndyCar Series are down to just – well – one remaining driver in Ed Carpenter, the “road course ringers” are on the endangered species list in NASCAR.

With Ron Fellows not racing at Sonoma this weekend, the only remaining driver you could consider one of the “ringers” in the field of 43 for this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 is Boris Said.

And driving he No. 32 7 Eleven/Amerigas Ford for Frank Stoddard’s FAS Lane Racing, frankly, he has little more than a puncher’s chance of finishing anywhere better than 25th.

Over the last four to five years in particular, there’s been collective growth of the entire NASCAR field on the road courses, whereas when Jeff Gordon was winning the Sonoma and Watkins Glen races at will about a decade or so ago there was a clear discrepancy and disparity between the front and back of the field.

Not so anymore.

Sonoma is now a wide-open event that has seen nine different winners in the last nine years – Gordon, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.

Bowyer and Truex have delivered the last two Sonoma wins for Michael Waltrip Racing – a team you wouldn’t immediately think of as a “road course powerhouse.” But teams like MWR have made the necessary engineering and setup upgrades to contend on these courses as well; the drivers have made the necessary strides, as well.

The “ringers,” meanwhile have been left to scrape together rides with middle of the pack rides at best, and have to punch above their weight. It’s an unrealistic expectation to think these guys – talented as they all are – can come into a NASCAR race, with almost no track time and setup data to work off on the current year, and then threaten the leaders.

Said’s eighth place in 2010 was the most recent top-10 finish for a “ringer” at Sonoma, and Robby Gordon finished second in one of his last seasons in NASCAR. That was a year that also included these fellow “ringers” in the field: Jan Magnussen, Mattias Ekstrom, P.J. Jones and Max Papis.

At Watkins Glen, the top-10 drought runs even longer, as Papis’ eighth place in 2009 represented his only career top-10 finish. That even comes with an asterisk since he ran 15 Cup races that season. Fellows came fourth in 2007 at the Glen in a true “ringer” role, driving the Joe Gibbs Racing-offshoot No. 96 Hall of Fame Racing entry.

Others that come to mind who’ve raced over the last decade or so: Fellows, Butch Leitzinger, Brian Simo, Tommy Kendall, Patrick Carpentier, Jacques Villeneuve, Andy Pilgrim, Anthony Lazzaro, Andrew Ranger, T.J. Bell, Tomy Drissi, Chris Cook, Tony Ave, and so on.

But most teams no longer need to install a plug-and-play “ringer” option for three reasons: A. They’re not guaranteed to do any better than a team’s regular driver, B. Unless they have past team experience, they’re a new option that disrupts chemistry and C. This year in particular, a “ringer” would prevent a full-time driver from having the opportunity to make the Chase, since they’d take away from making a qualifying attempt.

So gone from 2013 at Sonoma are Fellows (finished 22nd), Justin Marks (30th), Victor Gonzalez Jr. (37th), Drissi (38th), Paulie Harraka (39th) and Villeneuve (41st).

Were any of them potential winners? No, but, as one-off entrants in the field, they did add an extra degree of spice compared to the usual, normal blend of drivers that make up a majority of Cup weekends. You need that from time-to-time.

Sadly, it appears, those days are numbered.

MRTI: pre-season testing Day 3 notebook

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Day 3 of pre-season testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway saw the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda continue testing for the second day in a row, with each series completing three sessions on what was their final day of running.

Quick reports on both series are below.

Pro Mazda: Cunha Surges to the Front

While Saturday saw Pro Mazda newcomers like Oliver Askew, Parker Thompson, and Rinus VeeKey lead the way, Sunday saw a pair of second-year Pro Mazda drivers take their turns at the top of the speed charts. In the combined results, Juncos Racing’s Carlos Cunha turned the fastest lap of the final session, also good enough to be the outright fastest lap of the weekend, taking advantage of a fresh set of Cooper Tires to do so.

“I’m really happy, Juncos Racing is an amazing team,” Cunha said of the team’s performance. “On track, we are always improving, never going backwards and that’s very good. We have tested a lot but we still need to learn a lot about the car, though we are almost to a perfect setup. The team has given me everything I need to be comfortable inside the car, to know what the car needs, and to know what I need to be a better driver. We have time to improve and we are moving forward quickly.”

Fellow sophomore driver Sting Ray Robb, now with Team Pelfrey, was right behind Cunha in second.

Combined results across both Saturday and Sunday can be found here.

USF2000: Kirkwood, Cape Motorsports Stay On Top of Deep USF2000 Field

New Cape Motorsports driver Kyle Kirkwood, who topped Session 2 on Saturday, stayed on top of the combined speed charts across the weekend on the strength of his best lap from Session 3 of the weekend on Saturday.

Pabst Racing’s Rasmus Lindh was right behind Kirkwood, on the strength of his quick lap from Session 1.

However, Sunday’s running saw a different driver assert his authority, with Kaylen Frederick, Lindh’s teammate at Pabst, turning the fastest lap during the final session.

Frederick ended up fourth in the combined results, which can be viewed here.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires will take to the Homestead-Miami road course on Monday for the final day of testing for the Mazda Road to Indy.

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