Who are the best road racers on tour, and does it really matter anymore?
There was a time when it took a special driver in a special car to win at Riverside, Watkins Glen and Sonoma.
Leadfoots like Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner didn’t bother in the early years, and not until Richard Petty won at Riverside in 1969 (in a Ford) did a NASCAR regular break through on the road course.
Now with the addition of the “roval” in Charlotte, there are three road course in Cup racing, though they are nothing alike.
This week we travel to Watkins Glen, a place that has produced winners ranging from Buck Baker and Kyle Petty to Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Through the years, as teams experimented with weight distribution and Jericho clutches, they slowly figured out how to build special cars that didn’t require special drivers. Thus the ringers like Max Papis, Scott Speed and Ron Fellows began to disappear.
Tony Stewart, it turned out, was better than all of them.
The current era of drivers includes road-course naturals like Chase Elliott, Martin Truex and Joey Logano. But the truth is, the cars are so good now than almost any driver on tour can win on a road course.
That makes Sunday one of the more interesting races, with even Jimmie Johnson considered one of the favorites. His time is running out, but this might be one of the best shots he’ll have at breaking his long winless streak. He’s never won there, however.
More likely, we’ll see the usual suspects up front — Truex, Logano, Elliott, Kevin Harvick and the Busch brothers.
This is a throwback event at a track known as the “spiritual home” of road racing in America. It was once a literal road course than ran through town in the idyllic finger lakes.
It’s taken NASCAR more than 60 years to figure it out, and drivers actually look forward to it, for the most part. There are some drivers who will never figure it out, and some teams simply not equipped to build a car fast enough and safe enough to compete.
Only six drivers currently active have ever won at Watkins Glen: Elliott, Truex, Denny Hamlin, Logano, Kyle Bush and Harvick. So even after all these years, it still takes a driver with road-course savvy to win.
There’s a new breed of driver in NASCAR now, but other than Elliott, none of the young guns drive hard enough to win on road courses. Maybe one will this weekend.
But don’t count on it.