In the 2000s and early-to-mid-2010s, all three of NASCAR’s premier series raced on a minimal amount of road courses. For the longest time, the NASCAR Cup Series had two road course races, and the NASCAR Xfinity Series had two or three, depending on the season. Meanwhile, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series had one road course race per season beginning in 2013, after not racing on a road course since 2001.
NASCAR used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to completely revamp the schedule, not only for 2020, but seasons to follow, and road courses were a big focus. New road courses across all three series were introduced, such as Road America’s Cup date, Portland International Raceway, Circuit of the Americas, the Chicago Street Course, the Daytona International Speedway road course, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
But one thing that seemed to have gone away with the addition of more road courses is the idea of the road course ringer, a driver whose main discipline is outside of NASCAR, but because of that experience will enter a NASCAR race with a team to try to steal a win.
Drivers like Boris Said, Ron Fellows, Billy Johnson, Alex Tagliani and Scott Pruett all drove primarily on road courses in their career throughout NASCAR’s premier series. But the last time a prominent ringer had made a start in the Cup Series was when Johnson drove the No. 43 at Sonoma Raceway in 2017, replacing Aric Almirola, who was nursing a broken back at the time.
But even that was in the midst of a decline; ringers had pretty much died out. The introduction of charters and the playoff system put a big damper on them too, as drivers now needed to learn how to drive on road courses instead of hiring a ringer. Every so often one might pop up on an entry list, but some were beginning to wonder if the ringer would ever return on a consistent basis.
Then the schedule changed in 2020 to include more road courses. With this came a potential revival of the road course ringer.
In 2022, several drivers from other disciplines of motorsports were announced to drive for various teams in the Cup Series. FIA World Endurance Championship driver Mike Rockenfeller drove Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 at Watkins Glen International and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat made two starts with Team Hezeberg at Indianapolis and Charlotte.
Perhaps the most notable entry that could pave the way for ringers to make a full-blown return is Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91, a car that is specifically entered in races for drivers from other motorsports disciplines to try their hand at the top echelon of NASCAR. F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen debuted last season at Watkins Glen and will drive again at Circuit of the Americas. Team owner Justin Marks has said that the car will run multiple races with multiple drivers this season, so there’s a potential for even more ringers this season.
Speaking of this season, COTA kicks off NASCAR’s road course slate, and the Cup field is stacked with ringers for the event, something that hasn’t been said in several years.
Raikkonen makes his aforementioned return in the No. 91. F1 champion Jenson Button will make his NASCAR debut, driving the Rick Ware Racing No. 15 prepared by Stewart-Haas Racing, in his first of three starts this season in preparation for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver Jordan Taylor will make his NASCAR debut, substituting for the injured Chase Elliott in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 9. And IndyCar driver Conor Daly makes his return to The Money Team Racing’s No. 50, after last competing in the Daytona 500.
The Xfinity field is just as rife with ringers. Miguel Paludo returns to JR Motorsports’ No. 88, while Preston Pardus will attempt his season debut with his family team. Meanwhile, Alex Labbe will fill the No. 92 for the suspended Josh Williams, and IMSA driver Cameron Lawrence will drive MBM Motorsports’ No. 66.
The Truck Series will feature IndyCar driver Ed Jones attempting his debut behind the wheel of Young’s Motorsports’ No. 20 as well.
With the diversity across disciplines, will we see ringers become a permanent fixture in NASCAR again? There was always something fun about seeing the one-off ringers try to steal a win from underneath series regulars’ noses (such as Marks’ 2015 triumph at Mid-Ohio or Michael McDowell’s win at Road America in 2016). And it seems like a return is upon us.
Trackhouse’s Project 91 is going to be a crucial piece in getting ringers back on a regular basis, as the goal is to get international drivers from other disciplines. It’ll be interesting to see who the team can get behind the wheel this year.
Now, will there be another open wheel invasion? That’s a question for another time.
About the author
Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022 and is the co-author of both Only Yesterday (Wednesdays) and Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he also pens a third column, the Tracking the Trucks race report. An Akron, Ohio native, he is a proud alum of West Virginia Wesleyan College.
You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.
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I remember the 2000s when ringers were prominent. I don’t think any of them ever won, but they generally did a lot better than the teams they drove for usually did.
Boris Said was always in the thick of it and I remember the anguish in Ron Fellows’s face when he finished second at the Glen. Ringers can add an element of fun to it.