The Sprint Cup Series schedule has once again reached its first road course race of the year, the Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma in California.
Road courses are often some of the trickiest tracks the drivers race on throughout the course of a NASCAR season because the perfect mix of driving skill, car handling, and strategy required to take home a victory. And it shows statistically, with drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Mark Martin dominating these such races over the years.
But every year when the Series stops at the two road courses, the “road course ringers” come out in full force. A “road course ringer” is typically defined as a driver who specializes in road course driving and tends to only race in NASCAR’s two road course events each year. These “ringers” almost never race on any oval tracks throughout the rest of the year, preferring to stick to what they’re good at.
Every now and then however, a driver who came from a road racing background will race a full NASCAR season instead of simply road courses. No two drivers in recent memory come to mind faster than Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose. Both drivers excel on road courses due to the racing they participated in prior to joining the Sprint Cup Series.
Montoya, from Bogota, Colombia, has done it all, competing in both Formula One and the old CART series, which is now IndyCar, before entering NASCAR with owner Chip Ganassi. He performed well in both series, winning the prized race in each, the Monaco Grand Prix in F1 and the Indianapolis 500 in IndyCar.
Ambrose, from Launceston, Tasmania, is perhaps the greatest Australian V8 Supercar driver in history. The V8 Supercar series is known for all of its races being on road courses.
Now, when both drivers entered the sport, many thought that these two drivers would race very well at the road courses and struggle everywhere else. For awhile, it seemed that was the case as Montoya scored both of his two NASCAR wins at the road courses, one at Sonoma and the other at Watkins Glen, and Ambrose winning his sole NASCAR race at Watkins Glen as well.
Many people still peg the pair as “ringers”, but after what I saw last weekend at Michigan, it’s clear to see that these drivers have evolved into well-rounded NASCAR drivers, being able to compete at each and every track.
Ambrose captured the pole at Michigan last weekend, his first ever in NASCAR, and did so in impressive fashion, becoming only the second driver in history to win a pole at a lap over 200mph, with Bill Elliott being the other. And Ambrose didn’t just fade back after the start of the race, he led a great deal of the first 50 laps of the race and finished a solid 9th, his third top-10 of the season, none of which have come at road courses so far. As for Montoya, he never led at Michigan, but he was in or around the top-10 all day and finished a solid 8th.
I know this is just one race, but take a deeper look into the stats and it’s easy to see that this pair can no longer be tabbed as “ringers”.
Montoya has 51 career top-10’s in NASCAR and only 8 of those have come at road courses. Pair that with his seven career poles, none of which have come at road courses, and it’s clear that Montoya can race on oval tracks with the best of them. He even has a Chase appearance back in 2009 where he finished the season in 8th place.
Ambrose has 28 career top-10’s with only seven of them coming at road courses. He has particularly excelled at short tracks such as Bristol and Richmond and is beginning to run strong at intermediate tracks now such as Michigan and Charlotte.
It’s unfortunate, but necessary at the same time that these two drivers will have to win at an oval track to forever have the “ringer” tag removed from them even though they outclass any “ringer” I’ve ever seen in terms of driving ability. For Ambrose, I think his time is coming soon as his Richard Petty Motorsports team is running better every week. And for Montoya, he’s been very up and down, but he can win nearly anywhere.
Oh yeah, and though I’ve been praising the oval driving of these two, still don’t be surprised to see either one of these road race pros in victory lane in Sonoma this weekend.
*All statistical information obtained from NASCAR.com