NASCAR: Phasing Out The Road Course Ringers

Jun 28, 2015; Sonoma, CA, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon (24) leads driver Austin Dillon (3) during the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 28, 2015; Sonoma, CA, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon (24) leads driver Austin Dillon (3) during the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports /

The first of two road course races on the Sprint Cup Schedule is this weekend at Sonoma, but only one road course “ringer” has made the entry list.

This Sunday marks the first road course race of the Sprint Cup season down at Sonoma Raceway in California, and it’s sure to bring excitement as well as shake up the point standings. Road course races are extremely unpredictable, and although you have certain drivers like Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart who are typically front-runners at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, it’s really anyone’s race.

Over the years, one of the strategies lower budget teams would try is to bring in so-called “Road Course Ringers” to try and get some owner points. These drivers would usually be brought in from other series, such as IndyCar, Champ Car, and American Le Mans, where road courses are the standard track.

Big names such as Boris Said, Ron Fellows, Patrick Long, and others have all gotten behind the wheel of a NASCAR plenty of times, often resulting in solid finishes for teams that are normally back of the pack on your standard oval track. It also provides great excitement for the fans, as it’s a racing fan’s dream to see road course legends like Said and Fellows racing alongside NASCAR legends Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

These days might be over though, as lately the number of road course ringers has decreased, leaving maybe one or two per race over the last few years. According to the entry list for this years Toyota/Save Mart 350, only one real ringer has been entered, with former IndyCar driver Patrick Carpentier being brought in to drive the #32 Ford Fusion for Go FAS Racing.

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Already locked in due to owners points, Carpentier will go into this weekend with all sights set on a win. The 44-year-old Canadian is no stranger to the NASCAR circuit, as he has raced in all three major series, posting a few top ten finishes in his limited work.

With the costs of running a NASCAR team at an all time high, many teams have decided to run part-time schedules or just close up shop all together. This depletion of teams has caused NASCAR to cut down the starting field from 43 to 40 in order to have a full field. This season, the max amount of drivers that have entered a race and attempted to qualify is 44 at the Daytona 500, with the lowest being 39 at Atlanta. For most races, team’s don’t even have to worry about racing their way in, as only 40 cars enter the race.

The fact that team’s no longer really have to worry about making races has primarily caused the reduction in use of road course ringers. Another reason is that with the way the Chase is now set up, one win gets you into NASCAR’s playoffs, so most teams would rather have the chance for their normal driver to get the victory instead of a one-off driver.

The ringers also are not a guaranteed good finish, with the highest finish by a non-regular driver on a road course in 2015 being a 26th place at Sonoma by Boris Said. The upward trend of the full-time NASCAR drivers becoming better road course racers has caused teams to stray away from the once popular road course ringers.

Barring a change in the playoff format or an expansion of the amount of starting cars, I expect the road course ringer to be fully phased out in the very near future. While it is fun to see different drivers thrown into the mix, it’s just not cost-effective or worth the points loss for the small budget teams to pay for someone else to come in just for a race or two.

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Even without the ringers, Sonoma and Watkins Glen will still be must watch races, and I expect a wild race this Sunday when the green flag drops.