When the Cup Series converges on the wine country of Sonoma this weekend, there will be a lot of talk about the road course ringers -- specialists taking rides from regular drivers who struggle with both left
Instead, a different type of mentality is resurfacing as Cup Series regulars are fighting back and establishing themselves as the more dominant road course experts. With just three top 10s by ringers over the past three years, races like Sunday's and Watkins Glen's in August are almost guaranteed to have Cup Series regulars running up front.
But who's the best road course racer these days? The answer might surprise you, as longtime Kings of the Road
How did Busch get up to speed so quickly? By the new phenomenon that's sweeping the top teams across the board: using road racing experts to "coach" Cup regulars.
"I was just lost," Busch said of his first road course race, in 2005. "I give a lot of that credit to learning a lot from
"[I also] followed guys like Boris Said and
Now, the teachers have become the pupils as Busch has established himself among the road course elite. In the past six road course races, his worst finish was 11th at Sonoma in 2006.
"I love road racing because it's almost like an off weekend to me," Busch continued. "You get a chance to turn right and left and be kind of crazy. You try not to go off course, but it does happen and you get a chance to rebound as quickly and smoothly as you can."
"I've just always liked it," Stewart said of a history of road course success that also includes a national go-kart championship. "Driving cars with suspension, and definitely driving cars that you had to shift, that's something that came relatively easy to me, and still comes easy to me as far as knowing how to synchronize the gears without having to use the help of the clutch. Even in the sports cars that I've driven with guys who have driven road courses all their life, I've gotten out of the car and the crew has torn the gearboxes apart and said that the dog rings in my transmission look better than when those guys are done with a transmission."
But the shifter isn't the only thing Stewart uses to his advantage. Going along with a running theme sweeping the Cup Series garage in recent years, Stewart says a positive attitude towards turning both left and right has helped put him on the same page as ringers, who do this type of racing for a living.
"I take the same amount of pride that someone like Ron Fellows or
Edwards hasn't spent a whole lot of time up front at these places -- he's led just 14 laps on road courses in his Cup career -- but he's been very consistent at places where pit strategy and off-course excursions can lead to a poor finish in the snap of a finger. In the past six road course races, the worst finish for Edwards was 18th at Sonoma in '07; he's grabbed five top-10 finishes and one top 5 during that span. The key now is whether Edwards can step it up a notch and contend. No Roush Fenway car has visited Victory Lane at a road course since
However, the Ford side has been helped the past few years by the strength of a new ally: Boris Said. Since starting his now RCM No Fear team a few years ago, Said has proven an invaluable teacher. While Said has been preoccupied with getting his own program off the ground this year, the lessons remain ingrained in a five-car team that also saw significant improvement from
"We typically see teams pit before their fuel window, and they're banking on caution flag laps to get to the end," said crew chief
This year, a new wrinkle in that decision is expected to affect competition even further: double-file restarts. With 43 cars barreling into Turn 1 double-wide every time they wave the green, the potential for disaster increases, and with it, so does the complexity of when and how to gamble on fuel.
"With double-file restarts, will we see more cautions at the end of the race?" asked Letarte. "If you're betting we do, do you pit five laps before your window? Seven? 10?"
"That's what makes this race so fun ... and so stressful."
For Johnson, the key to improvement has been practice, practice... and more practice. Running the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in sports cars has really helped him, getting the driver more comfortable with the rhythm of hitting his marks.
"I just hope that we can get the balance right on race day," he said. "We seem to miss the setup from the practice session on Saturday to what the conditions will be come race time on Sunday. Hopefully we can get that a little closer and have a good run."
Speaking of the little guys,