Road Course 101: Love Them Or Learn Them
Road courses. Some drivers love them – think Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon – and others go because they’re part of the 36-race NSCS schedule.
But no competitor or team takes them for granted.
“Yeah, [it’s] pretty much just another race now,” said Kevin Harvick, winner at The Glen in 2006. “I think everybody knows that you are going to a road course and you’ve got a lot of different aspects from a driver’s standpoint, team standpoint that you have to pay attention to.”
Road racing has been Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Achilles’ heel. He’s started 25 of them and has just two top fives, both at The Glen, to show for his trouble. This season is different. He has tested at least three times on road courses and may finally have found a combination Junior likes.
“We made a lot of changes and a few of them changes in particular revolutionized the way the car drove and the way it felt,” he said. “The stop watch was way faster, so I’m excited.”
There always will be the so-called “road course ringers” – specialists from other motorsports disciplines – who can take a moderately competitive car and turn it into a top-10 or even top-five challenger. Most successful in recent seasons is international and GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series star Boris Said, who’s been tapped to drive Frankie Stoddard’s No. 32 Fas Lane Motorsports Ford this weekend. Said finished third at The Glen in 2005 and will be making his 25th NSCS road racing start. He has seven top-10 finishes and a Coors Light Pole in his series career at The Glen and Sonoma.
Gordon Goes From Chase Purgatory To ‘Wild Card’ Potential
So who’s got the golden horseshoe now? That would be Jeff Gordon, who went from Chase purgatory to provisional “wild card” qualifier in the blink of an eye last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
Transfer the word “luckless” from Gordon to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. Johnson’s dominant day at the “Tricky Triangle” ended in the Turn 1 spin that literally opened the door for the trailing Gordon, who ended a 31-race winless streak with his 86th career victory.
Luck notwithstanding, results are the only things that count.
With his post-season hopes fading rapidly, Gordon bypassed three “wild card” rivals and would join HMS teammate Kasey Kahne were the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ field be set today.
Gordon can identify with Johnson. He’s also had fast cars – and nothing to show for it due to flat tires, bizarre mechanical failures and other issues outside the driver’s control. The last seven races, however, have seen something of a renaissance. Gordon still ranked outside the top 20 – and ineligible for a “wild card” – following June’s Pocono race.
He’s now 13th in the standings, 68 points out of the top 10. While he’s scored the same number of points (611) as one-time winner Ryan Newman, Gordon holds the best-finish tie-breaker (two fifths to Newman’s one). Gordon also became Hendrick’ fourth winner of the season marking the first time since 2007 each of the team’s drivers posted at least one victory.
Where there’s a winner, there’s a loser. And Kyle Busch is that guy.
Busch provisionally held the second “wild card” but tumbled from 11th to 15th place, two points positions ahead of Joey Logano, June’s Pocono winner.
It has been an uncharacteristic season for Busch, who hasn’t won fewer than three times in each of the past four seasons since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008. Busch’s only victory this year came in May at Richmond International Raceway.
Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International offers good and bad news. The top 10 appears virtually set with Kahne 57 points behind 10th-place Clint Bowyer. Bowyer won June’s road race in Sonoma, Calif.
Gordon has four victories at The Glen, the last in 2001. His record since hasn’t been exactly stellar – two top 10s and an average finish of 20.1.
Busch won at The Glen in 2008 and is the most recent to sweep both series road races.
Newman and Logano continue to pursue their first road course wins.
There is hope for several non-winning drivers among or close to the top 20. Marcos Ambrose (18th) and Juan Pablo Montoya (21st) are the 2.45-mile track’s most recent winners although neither could translate those victories into Chase qualification. Montoya won the Coors Light Pole a week ago at Pocono.
Stewart Has Potential To Snatch No. 1 Chase Seeding At The Glen
Three points don’t sound like much until you remember that last year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship turned on a tie-breaker. One more regular-season victory would have made Carl Edwards – not Tony Stewart – the champion.
Stewart had no wins entering post-season competition. Not so this year in which three drivers, Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, have won three times and continue to battle for the No. 1 seed entering the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 16.
Johnson had three more points firmly in his grasp a week ago at Pocono until spinning from the lead on a 91st lap restart, moments before weather ended the Pennsylvania 400.
Now it’s Stewart’s turn. The three-time champion has won five times at Watkins Glen, more than any other driver. Statistically, he’s royalty at the 2.45-mile road course, boasting series-best numbers in Driver Rating (124.8), Fastest Laps Run (105), Laps in the Top 15 (96.7%) and average Green Flag Speed.
Keselowski has little road course experience compared with Stewart and Johnson, a winner at Sonoma in 2010. He finished second at The Glen a year ago, handicapped by a broken ankle that was supposed to sap his endurance on the left and right turn layout.
Under The Radar: Truex Quietly A Championship Contender
For obvious reasons, the word “Junior” has been written somewhere nearing the bazillion mark during this 2012 NASCAR season. Almost all of them preceded by the words “Dale” and “Earnhardt.”
But come the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, another Junior may shift into focus: Martin Truex Jr. Quietly, Truex has racked up career numbers, and is assuredly on his way to a Chase berth. Currently fifth in points, Truex owns a 72-point cushion over the Chase cut-off.
Truex already has more top fives (five) and laps led (320) this season than in any full season since 2007, the first and thus far only season he has made the Chase. Almost all his numbers through 21 races far surpass any season of his career through 21 races. For instance:
His five top fives and 11 tops 10s are career-bests through 21 races. His previous best was four top fives and seven top 10s in 2007.
His average finish of 11.3 is by far his best through 21 events. Previous best: 16.9 in 2008.
His average running position of 11.4 tops his 2008 figure of 14.7 as his best through 21 races.
Truex has never broken the 90-point Driver Rating barrier after 21 races, until now. His Driver Rating of 96.3 tops his previous best of 86.5 in 2007.
But one stat remains noticeably vacant: wins. Truex’s wins drought stands at 188 races since his lone career win at Dover on June 4, 2007. His best finish this season was a runner-up at Kansas. Truex has performed admirably at Watkins Glen, finishing fourth last year and tallying three top-10 finishes in all. In June’s Sonoma race, Truex led 15 laps, only to finish 22nd after a last lap spin.
Variety Describes Remaining Race To The Chase Venues
Variety is the spice of the remaining five races in the Race to the Chase.
No two tracks – or measurements – are alike as the final field of 12 is set for the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s post-season over the coming month.
Up first, the 2.45-mile road course at Watkins Glen International followed by fast Michigan International Speedway. Marcos Ambrose set the track qualifying record of over 203 mph when the series visited the repaved, 2.0-mile layout in June.
Then it’s back to the first of two short tracks. No one is quite sure what to expect, new Bristol, old Bristol or somewhere in between. Reconstruction of the track’s concrete banking followed March’s race.
Atlanta Motor Speedway, a 1.54-mile intermediate track, hosts the series on Labor Day weekend with 0.75-mile Richmond International Raceway closing out the regular season on Sept. 8.
Three of the tracks have seen NSCS competition in 2012. Brad Keselowski won at Bristol. Kyle Busch won at Richmond and current points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. was victorious at Michigan.
Ryan Newman will again attempt to become the ninth driver to win 50 NSCS Coors Light poles. Newman, pole-less at Watkins Glen, has made 10 starts there with an average starting position of 10.0. … Brian Vickers returns to NSCS competition this weekend in the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. Vickers has posted two top fives in four starts this year, including a fourth-place run at the Sonoma road course. … NASCAR will honor veterans from the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. Post 2674 in Watkins Glen, N.Y., to Watkins Glen International on Sunday through an initiative called “Troops to the Track,” which invites active duty, wounded warriors, veterans and military families to races throughout the year for NASCAR-style VIP experiences.