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.