Though Daytona isn’t for another few weeks, one of the biggest wildcard races of the season is about to unfold for the Nationwide Series this weekend, and for the ARCA Racing Series ranks a week later. Road course racing is returning to big-time stock car competition, with the Nationwide field visiting Road America this Saturday and the ARCA boys New Jersey Motorsports Park the following Sunday.
For both series, it’s certainly an interesting time in the schedule for each series to start turning right as well as left. Both development series kicked off the 2012 campaign with hectic events at the Daytona International Speedway and then endured sporadic events with multiple bye weeks. It’s only recently that either one has seen the true form of their title chases take form; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler have both evened out after having respective hot stretches in Nationwide competition, allowing Austin Dillon to join the fray, whereas on the ARCA side Brennan Poole and Chris Buescher have combined to win the last four events in that series.
Now, any sense of predictability or momentum stands as good a shot of being derailed at this point than at any other on the schedule. If there’s any lesson to be learned from the last few years, it’s that road racing stock cars makes crazy things happen on the track…and in the finishing order.
Justin Allgaier ran out of gas under yellow coming to the checkered flag at Road America a season ago, and lost the race doing it. The final 10 minutes saw one Turner Motorsports driver hand the win to another (Reed Sorenson), while Ron Fellows tried even passing cars under yellow to take the trophy himself. In New Jersey, part-timers have scored the win the past three seasons in dramatic fashion, be it Andrew Ranger storming from the back of the field to first after an engine change a season ago to Casey Roderick’s bump-and-run on Tim George Jr. the year before (and the post-race confrontation in victory lane that followed). And that’s just at the front of the field.
The reality is, stock car racing on road courses is inherently a lottery, very much like a restrictor plate race. The cars are so top heavy, even a perfectly set up machine is still going to be teetering on the edge with every flat turn, be it a left or right hander. The hazards of a simple mistake aren’t a light kiss of the wall that one can drive off from, but gravel and sand traps that all but guarantee a date with the wrecker, and laps lost on the track. And perhaps most notably, the field is going to be full not just of inexperience, but of drivers whose racing disciplines aren’t even in stock cars, drivers that make only one or two starts a year.
Just look at the Nationwide Series entry list; Victor Gonzalez is making his first start in nearly two years (Montreal, 2010); Alex Kennedy since Montreal, 2011; Kyle Kelley since Montreal last year; John Young hasn’t run NASCAR since 2008; Max Papis in his first NASCAR race of the 2012 season at any level; Jacques Villeneuve since Montreal last season (even with that road racing experience, he sure is capable of making these races chaotic, just look at the finish a year ago at Montreal). Canadian Kenny Habul hasn’t raced even in CASCAR since 2006. Much of the entry list looks like the back of the field for the Indianapolis 500…talented or not, there’s a lot of rust to be shaken off.
What does all of this mean? It’s not necessarily a huge departure from business as usual for either the ARCA or Nationwide ranks; after all, a ton of full-time teams in both series are already essentially rent-a-rides, fielding a revolving door of drivers that mix up the field every weekend and provide a plethora of new faces that the regulars have to compete with.
On a road course, where 90% of the field has built their racing resume on an oval, where the majority of the field is inherently inexperienced given the status of both ARCA and the Nationwide Series as a site for driver development, and well, the general level of calamity that has gripped every road race these series have held the past few years (Robby Gordon vs. Marcos Ambrose at Montreal 2007 ring a bell?), chaos isn’t a possibility, it’s a given.
Given that both ARCA and the Nationwide ranks are currently playing host to title chases with three or more players, there’s a very real chance that both tours are going to head into the heat of summer still wide open for the taking.
Who says road racing is a bad thing?