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.

Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s INDYCAR race was postponed until Monday

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Here’s what several drenched drivers had to say after Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was postponed until Monday morning (11:30 a.m. ET, LIVE on NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2018 pole winner): “It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us. We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much. There was too much puddling and pooling of water on every straightaway. Then the rivers started flowing, high-speed compressions in Turns 1 and 2, fast corner, 12 and 13, fast corner where the river starts to form. Just tough. I mean, look, we love racing in the rain. It’s got nothing to do with not wanting to run in the rain, not being able to do that. It’s that this type of track with this water level was too much to race today. We’ve run here in the rain before, but it intensified to the point where you’re starting to get in a situation where it’s going to take it out of the drivers’ hands. What happened with Will (Power), I don’t think is a driver error. I don’t know how anyone is going to drive hydroplaning on the front straightaway. I think you would have had that for the rest of the track, too. A tough situation. Thanks for the fans that came out and supported us. Hopefully we’ll get some people back tomorrow and we’ll get the show in and put on a great event.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet):
“Tough day so far. We had some problems with our radio and fuel alarm, but otherwise the car was alright. It was just too dangerous out there, we couldn’t see anything, so I think they made the right call. Hopefully we’ll have a good race tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s just a real shame for everyone on the Verizon Chevy team. The car was good and we were doing our best out there, but it was really hard to see anything in front of me. The conditions were just so bad. As soon as I got to the frontstraight, the car just came around, and I tried to keep it off the wall, but it was hydroplaning and there was nothing I could do. I feel bad for the team and for the fans in this weather. Just too bad. Hopefully our luck can turn around when we get to Indianapolis.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Very difficult day for us. In the race we were 13th at the time and we had some electrical issues, so that caused us to pit and we lost a lap. Not the ideal situation, but we don’t give up. There’s still a race tomorrow and we’re going to go for the most points. Anything can happen.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue today, no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in today, but that’s life. We will go racing tomorrow.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “I think definitely the right decision was made to red flag the race. It’s a very difficult position for everyone to be in. It’s never the result that you want, but safety is obviously a priority. I think everyone did a good job considering the conditions of looking out for each other. Not being able to see is not doing anybody any good. It is hard for everyone, but glad that we’re all in one piece and try again later.

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “As you could see on TV, if you couldn’t see the car, it was probably three times worse in the cockpit on the main straight or any straight. You had to completely trust the guys that they were accelerating. Never the less, I made good progress on the short stint and I made up a few positions.  The car was working well, but also was aquaplaning a lot, too, so I have to respect INDYCAR’s decision for everyone’s safety. Now we really need to concentrate on having a good car for tomorrow. I’m sorry for the fans that sat in rain all day, but thank them for their support.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “It was a short day. In the beginning the conditions were not that good, but afterwards the conditions started to improve. The race was stopped, then restarted, and I think the conditions were not too bad at that point. Unfortunately, it was red flagged again and then cancelled for the day. It would have been nice to get halfway, but we will come back and try again tomorrow.”