Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Do the Cup Road Course Ringers Stand a Chance at Victory?

The NASCAR Cup Series field holds its first of six road course races this season, when it visits Circuit of the Americas. The 3.41-mile road course in Austin, Texas hosts the series for the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix.

Thirty-nine drivers are entered for this race. Among the entrants are part-timers Conor Daly and Jimmie Johnson as well as debuts for Jenson Button and Jordan Taylor. Trackhouse Racing Team is also bringing out its No. 91 Chevrolet for Kimi Raikkonen.

While sports car specialists were a fixture at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International in the 1990s-2000s, their value seemed to dwindle a bit in recent years. With an accomplished group of drivers joining the series regulars, the question becomes whether these road course ringers can win the race? Mark Kristl and Vito Pugliese debate in this 2-Headed Monster.

The Ringers Don’t Stand a Chance

The NASCAR Cup Series race at the Circuit of the Americas has some added flavor to it. Taylor, Button and Raikkonen are three drivers who normally wouldn’t compete on the ovals. But these three are road course experts.

Add in Daly with his open-wheel experience and seven-time Cup champion Johnson to the entry list and this field got much more interesting.

But are any of these drivers contenders for victory? In short, no.

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Daly has 98 NTT IndyCar Series starts, but only one podium finish. His team, The Money Team Racing, rejoiced when he made the Daytona 500. But he still finished 29th, five spots better than his Cup debut in the 2022 event at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.

Johnson has seven championship rings, but when was the last time he went to victory lane? In 2019, he won the exhibition Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway. The last time he won a points event was two years prior in 2017 at Dover Motor Speedway.

Furthermore, Johnson isn’t a terrific road course racer. In his Cup career, he only has one road course victory, in 2010. Though he came close in 2018 when a last ditch divebomb on Martin Truex Jr. went sideways at the Charlotte ROVAL. Yes, Johnson is one of the all-time NASCAR greats, but his excellence came on ovals, not road courses.

As for the three road course ringers? Raikkonen is in an open car for Trackhouse Racing.

Yes, the team won COTA last year with Ross Chastain and at Sonoma Raceway with Daniel Suarez. But those two are series regulars who’ve earned their rides and are far more experienced in the Next Gen than Raikkonen.

Raikkonen is making his second career Cup start and fourth overall in NASCAR. He enters COTA at a massive disadvantage compared to the rest of the field.

Button is debuting in Cup in the No. 15, an entry that is 28th in owners’ points. His teammate Cody Ware is 30th in points. Even though Stewart-Haas Racing is helping Rick Ware Racing with Button’s entry, its four drivers have a combined whopping two total Cup road course wins. Chase Briscoe could be a contender for the victory, but Button should consider himself lucky to finish inside the top 20.

That leaves Jordan Taylor, who is substituting for the injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Hendrick drivers are traditionally good at road course racing. But its drivers are some of the best in the Cup Series. Taylor? He’s making his series debut.

Consider this: there were six road course events on the 2022 Cup schedule. Six times the field turned left and right in the Next Gen. So, the series regulars all gained valuable experience in the Next Gen on road courses, including COTA. In addition, there is a 50-minute practice session. All 39 drivers will have that time to better their racecars. There’s a reason why these people – drivers, crew chiefs, pit crews and spotters – are in the Cup Series. They are really good at their jobs.

As a result, Taylor’s experience at COTA is minimized. With six road course races last year, top-notch teams and simulators to better prepare these drivers, the Cup regulars have improved their road course racing skills. They will be ready to battle for every position, and ultimately the win, on Sunday.

Taylor has the best shot of pulling off the surprise debut victory, but even his own teammates are good road course wheelmen. With the recent penalties handed down to the organization, the three other Hendrick drivers lost 10 valuable playoff points. A win at COTA cuts that loss in half. These three will be hungrier than ever to get to victory lane. And that’s not good news for Taylor.

A road course ringer in solid equipment could pull an upset in a NASCAR Xfinity Series or NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series road course event. But in Cup, with these talented competitors, smart teams and the ringers lacking the right combination of experience and equipment, they definitely won’t be contending for the race win. – Mark Kristl.

Flying Under the Radar is a Legitimate Threat

The term Road Course Ringer is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to the Cup Series.

Mainly, because no outside hired gun has ever actually won a Cup road course race in recent memory. Sure, Dan Gurney ruled the roost at Riverside back in the 1960s, but things evolved during the 80s and 90s. There were some drivers who definitely came close; Tommy Kendall in 1991 when contact with Mark Martin on the white flag lap cut his tire at Sonoma, and Ron Fellows in 2004 at Watkins Glen.

Fellows started dead last that day after qualifying was rained out, and almost shocked the world as he drove up to second place – this in an era before stage breaks and double-file restarts.

Since then, the ringers have been set to mute.

This year though, there is an interesting crop of specialists, including two of the most notable drivers from their respective series in the last 20 years.

Kimi Raikkonen, the Finnish Formula 1 star best known for his 2007 championship season with Ferrari and telling his Lotus team to shut up, he knows what he’s doing, is piloting the No. 91 Trackhouse entry again.

Kimi is no stranger to NASCAR; in 2011 he drove in the Craftsman Truck Series and Nationwide Series races for Kyle Busch Motorsports, most memorably telling his team that his “ass is on fire” not being used to the intense heat of the closed cockpit cars. Last year he was running well at Watkins Glen, wrecking after a stack up in the bus stop after Austin Dillon spun.

The Trackhouse cars are legit on road courses, winning here at COTA and at Sonoma with Suarez last season. It’s a solid set up for Kimi to perform well.

Jimmie Johnson is making his second start for Legacy Motor Club, the rebranded Petty GMS outfit, in his No. 84 Camaro. While Johnson is a seven-time champion, his most memorable road course moment was stuffing his car in the styrofoam barriers at Watkins Glen after brake failure caused him to jump the sand trap in turn 1.

The Legacy cars seem to have lost a step from last season based on how Erik Jones has performed thus far, so the jury is still out on how JJ might fare.

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Jenson Button, another Formula 1 World Champion, will be in a Rick Ware Racing Ford entry with support from the Stewart-Haas Racing team given the Mobil 1 sponsorship connection. Button has some laps in the Next Gen car, teaming with Johnson as part of the Garage 56 Le Mans effort with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports.

The driver I’m interested in seeing and the one who I feel stands the best shot at pulling off the upset is Jordan Taylor, subbing for Elliott in the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro. While regular crew chief Alan Gustafson is also out following Hendrick Motorsports’ mass suspension for altered hood louvers, this might be less of an issue here since Taylor doesn’t normally drive this car anyway. He’s also no stranger to the workings of HMS, having been an integral part of the development of the aforementioned Garage 56 Le Mans entry which is – you guessed it – a Chevrolet Camaro.

The site for the testing of the Garage 56: COTA

Unfair advantage? Hours and miles of practice in a similar vehicle with the same team certainly can’t hurt.

Taylor is an IMSA veteran and is eager to make the most of his opportunity. Does that mean he’s immediately a favorite this weekend? That may be a bit premature, but I think he has to be included in the conversation. Granted we’ve seen other road course specialists run competitively and consistently in the Cup Series; Boris Said immediately comes to mind, having coached virtually every driver in the field at some point during his hey days in the early and mid-2000s, before he tried to go Bobby Boucher on Greg Biffle at The Glen.

Let me put it this way, would I put $100 on Taylor to win this weekend? Some might say that’s aggressive; but I’d feel good about a top five or even top three.

Besides, if you remember last year at COTA, going into the final lap with two turns remaining Chastain was running third and won the race. As long as you’re in contact with the leader – you have a shot to win. Taylor is driving for what had been clearly the fastest cars on the track until last weekend in Atlanta and has home field advantage. Yeah, I’d take that bet. – Vito Pugliese

About the author

Mark Kristl joined Frontstretch at the beginning of the 2019 NASCAR season. He is the site's ARCA Menards Series editor. Kristl is also an Eagle Scout and a proud University of Dayton alum.

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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Shayne

Anything is possible. NASCAR will do their best to give fans an exciting GWC finish. Then the ringers might have a chance. Pray for rain.

DoninAjax

And Spahn and Sain?

DoninAjax

No! The regulars will spin out the ringers like they have always done.

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