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 and right turns. But while Patrick Carpentier, Ron Fellows, Boris Said, Brian Simo and others bring experience to the table, that know-how doesn't always translate to a great finish. In fact, a part-time driver hasn't won at a road course in over 35 years: Mark Donohue was the last to do it, driving for Roger Penske at Riverside in 1973.
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 Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon are getting challenged by a handful of up-and-coming stars. I calculated the average finish of all Cup drivers over the past six road course races, and here's who comes out on top:
1) KyleBusch (Average Finish: 6.2): Busch has never been thought of as a true road course racer. Former teammate Gordon raised his eyebrows and called it a "shocker" after Busch dominated at Infineon in 2008. Leading 78 of 110 laps, Busch used that experience as a boost in pulling off the road course sweep at Watkins Glen last August.
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 Max Papis, our test driver at Hendrick [at the time], and learning stuff from him and reading reports that he did and picking up on it."
"[I also] followed guys like Boris Said and Robby Gordon, the guys who are good at it and fast at it."
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."
2) Tony Stewart (Average Finish: 8.2): With six wins on road courses -- second only to Gordon since 1989 -- Stewart has established himself as a force at Sonoma.
"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 Scott Pruett does when they come into a road course race," he said. "I don't look at it from the standpoint that it's a negative weekend. I look at it as a positive, that it's something we enjoy, and I feel like that gives us a leg up on most of the guys we race with at these tracks."
3) Carl Edwards (Average Finish: 9.2): Carl Edwards, a road course racer? It's something you don't usually think of right off the bat, but the stats don't lie.
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 Mark Martin in 1997.
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 Matt Kenseth -- notorious for his poor performance at these tracks -- in 2008.
4) Jeff Gordon (Average Finish: 10.3): The modern-era leader in road course victories with nine, Gordon is perhaps a surprise at No. 4. But since winning at Sonoma in 2006, the Rainbow Warrior has fallen behind, along with others, in pit strategy. With laps around the 1.99-mile oval taking anywhere from 1:15 to 1:20, teams have taken to shortpitting the second they enter their final fuel window, moving towards the back of the lead lap while they pray a lucky caution comes out just after they've stopped -- automatically putting them in front at a place where track position proves key.
"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 Steve Letarte. "Last year, we stopped early and we were fortunate when a yellow flag waved while Jeff was on pit road. If we had waited one more lap, that decision probably would have cost us 10 or 15 positions on the track."
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."
5) Jimmie Johnson (Average Finish: 11.5): Rounding out the best five drivers on road courses over the past three years is the three-time champ, even though he has yet to add a victory at Sonoma or Watkins Glen to his resume. But what Johnson lacks in wins, he makes up for with consistency, finishing no lower than 17th the past three years. And at Sonoma last season, Johnson took a big step up, qualifying second and leading 27 laps before pit shuffling and other issues dropped him to 15th.
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."
Rick Hendrick said this week cost-cutting measures by Kellogg's and CARQUEST will likely leave a need for more sponsors to fund Mark Martin's No. 5 car in 2010. But can you imagine if, in this economy, multiple sponsors were actually spread around to fund multiple cars? NASCAR's got to find a way to cut costs so that the big teams don't need four or five companies to fund a full season -- taking those possibilities away from the little guys.
Speaking of the little guys, Carl Long's final appeal didn't reduce his record $200,000 fine for an oversized engine ... in an exhibition race. Approximately $16,000 has been donated to Long's cause, but until he gets the entire amount, he'll remain on the sidelines -- much to the chagrin of race fans who root for the underdog and dislike a penalty system in desperate need of reform.