Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: In NASCAR 2011, “Road-Course Ringer” Has a Brand New Definition

Whenever I am asked by one of my bemused Manhattan or London dwelling friends why on earth it is I like a sport that only turns left in circles, I never really know quite what to say. After all, explaining a passion and conveying the full sense of the fervor is not necessarily that easy.

It’s not that I don’t try – and indeed I’m vociferous in my arguments in praise of NASCAR – but for various reasons I don’t even feel I ever quite do the sport justice. (Other than, that is, telling people to go to a race and then they’ll get it.) Well, thankfully, if I’m asked this week, I’m able to tell my questioners that this week yep, they really be turning right with a trip to Infineon Raceway.

Set in the beautiful, rolling southern hills of Sonoma, Calif., the 1.99-mile, 12-turn road course has been on the NASCAR schedule since 1989 when the irrepressible iron man, Ricky Rudd, won the inaugural race in a Kenny Bernstein Buick. Just one of two road courses – the Watkins Glen race is set for Aug. 14 – the race is a complete break from the norm of oval racing, but road racing has been a part of the sport since the very earliest days.

In fact, the second ever race in Cup history was referred to as the Daytona Beach and Road Course – a track that would host 10 races at the top echelon pre-dating the construction of the sport’s most famous racetrack: Daytona International Speedway. In all, there have been races held at 12 different road courses including the two current tracks on the calendar; and, in 1958, as many as five races on the 38-race schedule were held at road courses. So it’s a part of the sport that has been there since the early days and in the humble point of view of this scribe: it’s not going anywhere soon, nor should it, not least given the quality of the racing.

This time last year, you might remember, Marcos Ambrose was primed to pick up a hugely morale-boosting first ever Cup victory. After Five-Time had looked strong early on, Ambrose had not only the lead, with seven laps to go under caution; he had the best car. But in a vain attempt to save fuel, Ambrose couldn’t get his car restarted on the caution lap and he was passed, at caution lap pace, by seven cars, including race winner Jimmie Johnson.

See also
Top 10 Reasons Marcos Ambrose Pulled Over & Stopped at Sonoma

Put politely it was a catastrophic error, but the Australian, who finished up in sixth place to go with a third-place effort in 2009 stood up and took his punishment answering the media questions about his mistake with forthright honesty.

“We went so close today, we almost crossed that bridge,” said Ambrose post-race. “We showed everyone out there today that we could win, we had the measure of Jimmie Johnson, it’s just a terrible way to finish. It is what it is, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but we’ll go away and come back stronger next time.”

So if you’re looking for a favorite for your fantasy lineups this weekend, Ambrose would very much be your man. And with the new rules this year with regard to the wildcard Chase slots, Ambrose might just be the redefinition of the term road-course ringer. In 2011, if you can stay in the top 20 in points and excel on road courses, you could just propel yourself straight into the Chase. Another driver who would fall into the same boat would be the irascible Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya.

After ruffling a few feathers earlier in the season, his old nemesis Ryan Newman in particular, and not running as well as perhaps would be expected, the driver of the No. 42 machine still sits in 15th place overall and with the two road courses – not to mention Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he has dominated, but not won, in the past couple of years – is well placed to land one of the two wildcard Chase berths.

Tony Stewart is a third driver who could very easily sweep the road courses and guarantee himself a Chase berth if he doesn’t qualify via the top 10. A third win for Jeff Gordon, the all-time leader in victories at Infineon with five, would guarantee (barring a drastic dip in form) a Chase berth.

It’s these kind of factors that just go to show the importance of the two road course races in the first 26. It can very easily be the difference between making it into the Chase (running well, picking up wins) and not – Kyle Busch missed out by eight points (under the old system) in 2009 don’t forget. You cannot afford to run well on the ovals and suck on the road courses – the odds at stake are too high. So for my money, if road courses are an important element in making the Chase, then why shouldn’t there be a road course in the Chase itself?

If it were my choice I would love to see the race run at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve: a 13-turn, 2.7-mile long track set on the Île Notre-Dame, a manmade island in the St. Lawrence River. Plus the Canadian fans, of which there are many, would come out in huge numbers and not just for race day. The track has hosted Formula 1 races for 33 years, with a brief hiatus in 2009, so it knows how to host a big occasion. Isn’t that the very nature of what the Chase is meant to be about?

At the end of Matt McLaughlin’s terrific race recap from Michigan, he has a section devoted to the next race.

See also
Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: 2011 Michigan Spring Race Recap

This week, he made his feelings pretty clear: “Racing stock cars on a road course is like racing garbage trucks in a gymkhana.” It’s a point of view many race fans share. And I respect it. But for a sport that had its very roots in racing fast cars on back roads, it just seems to me that road-course racing honors that. History and tradition are crucial building blocks of NASCAR so if you’re going to turn left and right, it should happen where it counts: in the Chase.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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