Road Tripping

Road-course events make for great racing theater, but without a date in the Chase just how relevant are they?
August 17, 2008

LAST SUNDAY'SSprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International in upstate New York had a littlebit of everything. There was domination, as Kyle Busch led 52 of 90 laps enroute to his eighth victory of the season. There was a brilliant performancefrom an unheralded part-timer, Australia's Marcos Ambrose, who took third afterstarting last in the field of 43. There were spinning cars and daring passes.And there was a nine-car wreck on Lap 75 that knocked four cars out for theday. All in all it was wildly entertaining. But in the end it underscored onceagain the odd role of road racing in NASCAR.

With just two suchevents each season (at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., in July, and at theGlen in August) and none in the Chase, the championship impact is minor.Indeed, four of the last five season champs, including Jimmie Johnson in 2006and '07, have never won a Cup race on a road course. NASCAR's popularity wasbuilt on the ethos, Go fast, turn left. For every driver in the Cup garage whosees road racing as the ultimate test of a driver's all-around skill, thereseem to be at least two to whom it represents a foreign version of the sport,in which they have no interest. "I grew up racing ovals, and racing ovalsis what I chose as a career," says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has never won aCup road race. "I wouldn't want more road courses on the schedule." Notsurprisingly, the drivers who do like road racing also tend to be the ones whoexcel at it. In the last decade Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have combined towin 14 of 20 Cup races at Sonoma and the Glen.

And that's theproblem. Drivers who don't like road racing seem content with ceding two wins ayear to Stewart and Gordon. (Only four other active Cup regulars—includingBusch, who won at Infineon in July—have won a road race.) The result is thatwhile a handful of drivers gun for victory, most seem happy just to get throughboth events without disaster. "Every race is important when you're tryingto get into the Chase," insists 2003 Cup champ Matt Kenseth. But Kensethhas never finished better than eighth in 18 combined starts at Sonoma and theGlen. Says Stewart, "If you're going to have road courses on the schedule,then they ought to be important. We have superspeedways in the Chase. We haveshort tracks."

The answer wouldbe to add a road-course race to the Chase (something NASCAR says it has noplans to do). The 10-race postseason currently includes five events oncookie-cutter 1.5-mile ovals. It would be easy to replace one of those with asecond trip to Sonoma or Watkins Glen. This would encourage most of the top Cupdrivers—at least those who make the Chase—to go for a road-course win at leastonce every season. There is a precedent for this. From 1981 to '87 the WinstonCup wrapped up its season at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway, a roadcourse that had been a regular stop on the circuit since 1961.

Johnson, for one,doesn't burn to win a road race just because it will help him win another Cup.He's got his legacy on his mind. "When I wake up in the morning and look inthe mirror, this is my challenge," he says. If only every other drivershared his motivation.

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Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.

Garage Talk

An insider on a top Cup team dishes on the hottesttopics in NASCAR.

It'd be no surprise to see Ryan Newman (right) sign todrive for Tony Stewart's team next season. They have a good relationship, andTony likes his style of driving. The question now is, Who's going to take overthe 12 car at Penske? With [Hendrick castoff] Casey Mears apparently headed toRCR, a possible pick is David Stremme. He's young, but everyone knows he'stalented.... NASCAR always suffers when the economy stumbles. What's differentthis year is how many cars have multiple sponsors. Companies just can't afford[a whole season]. The cost has gone from $10 million a year to $20 million andmore.... Martin Truex Jr. re-signed for 2009 at DEI because he'll be the No. 1driver there. DEI doesn't have the resources of Hendrick or Roush or Gibbs, buthe wouldn't have been the top dog at any of those places.

PHOTORUSS HAMILTON/APSWEEPER Busch (18) got his eighth win (and second road victory) of '08 at the Glen. PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)