There was a time when most NASCAR drivers agonized about having to race a road course twice a year. Many of them would rather make a trip to the dentist than compete at Riverside, Sonoma or Watkins Glen. That attitude opened the door for specialists to be hired. Drivers coined "road course ringers" would get the call twice a year.
The drivers who did win were those dedicated to the series, those who approached road racing with the same urgency and commitment as winning the race before, or the race after, who embraced the opportunity.
I didn't enjoy road racing as much as I should have, but I competed against many who did. What stood out to me about those drivers was their attitudes. They took charge and they took possession of the course rather than it taking possession of them.
With the Cup series headed to Sonoma this weekend (3 p.m. ET, FS1), I've assembled a list of my top 10 NASCAR road course drivers. Those on the list all competed full-time at NASCAR's highest level.
Absent from the list are three of the greatest our sport ever witnessed. Though both Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jimmie Johnson won a road course race, neither would be considered among the best at this discipline. Richard Petty won six times but did so in an era where few could match the quality of his car. I struggled mightily to leave my hero off the list. In his absence, I chose another from his era and he gets the list started.
Bobby Allison raced during a time (the 1960s and '70s) when it can be difficult to evaluate winners because the competitive landscape was very wide. When the third-place driver finishes several laps behind the winner on a road course, it suggests car and mechanical disparity. Regardless, Allison's six wins and several second-place finishes put him at the head of the class in that era.
Juan Pablo Montoya could not be outbraked by anyone and no one carried more speed into the turns than Montoya. The Colombian driver was very aggressive, very entertaining and carried a presence to Sonoma and Watkins Glen that did not exist at other tracks.
Marcos Ambrose had 18 top-5 finishes, including eight at Watkins Glen and Sonoma. Jeff Gordon told me about a time he and Ambrose were testing Watkins Glen and they swapped cars. He would say only that Ambrose was amazing. That's good enough for me to add him to the list.
Kyle Busch has four road course wins to date (two at Sonoma and two at Watkins Glen), and I predict he'll get at least four more before he hangs up his helmet. He's the only current Cup driver to make my list.
Mark Martin had a stretch of 10 consecutive top-5 finishes, including three wins in a row at Watkins Glen; that's no small feat. Martin has always been among the most underrated drivers in the history of the sport. Few were better.
Rusty Wallace attacked road courses the same way he approached short-track racing -- it was never a tire conservation approach from the Missouri driver. If the car stayed together and the tires held air, Wallace would contend for the win.
Ricky Rudd was smooth as silk on the twisting courses. He employed the heel-toe footwork, a purest form of braking with your right toes, while rolling your heel to the accelerator for matching revs during down shifts. Your left foot is used exclusively for the clutch pedal. I doubt any drivers in this weekend's race will use this technique because the new transmissions no longer require the clutch be engaged. They have no idea how good they have it. Rudd's footwork was a work of art. He made it look easy, but it wasn't!
The Virginia native is credited with six road course wins. He actually has seven, but he had a win taken away at Sonoma in 1991 following an incident with Davey Allison on the final turn of the final lap. The ruling has never been repeated. In fact, today such driving seems encouraged. Let's call it seven for Rudd.
Nos. 2 and 3
Gordon and Tony Stewart are too close to call. You could make an argument for either of these two to be ranked ahead of the other. While Gordon (9) has one more road course win than Stewart (8), he also had 13 more attempts. Regardless, we are all the beneficiaries of seeing two of the most talented road course racers in the history of NASCAR go head-to-head for a couple of decades. They were the premier heavyweights each time the Cup series visited a road course each season.
Before you push back too hard on neither being declared No. 1, consider this: In the 1980s, we witnessed a driver -- a wheelman -- who navigated the road courses with a reckless abandon. He threw his car in and out of each turn the same way an Olympic skier would attack the slalom, and he did it while leading the race. He won five road course races, four fewer than Gordon, but this article isn't about who won the most road course races, rather who was the best driver.
There is no doubt in my mind that Tim Richmond was the best we have ever seen pilot a NASCAR Cup car on the left and right handers.
In 16 Cup starts, Richmond won five. His 31 percent winning percentage on road courses is even more astonishing when you consider he had just entered a period of his career where he had been given the equipment to match his talent when suddenly his career and life unraveled.
I'm confident that had he competed as long as Gordon or Stewart, he most certainly would have retired with double-digit road course wins, perhaps as many as 15. Richmond was hired to drive for Rick Hendrick in 1986. It was a turning point in his career; he had just reached his prime. He won seven races, but it was his last full season in NASCAR. Richmond had only 185 starts in Cup, 620 fewer than Gordon.
I don't believe Richmond had the discipline or structure to match Gordon's career successes, not even close, but I do believe he would have exceeded Gordon's nine road course wins. Regardless, Richmond was the purest form of driver I had ever seen in that NASCAR environment. He was universally recognized as a free spirit among his NASCAR fraternity and appeared most free when leading a road course event.