It's road course time again as the Nextel Cup series makes its annual venture to Watkins Glen, N.Y., the second and final road course race of the season following June's race at Infineon Raceway.
Watkins Glen International and the wine country of Sonoma, Calif., offer vintage racing for old-school race fans and a distinct challenge for everyone involved. Drivers have to learn the fastest way around a course that features not only left and right hand turns, but hills as well. Crew chiefs have to learn which turns to sacrifice when setting up the car to gain more ground in others. And fans? They have to figure out who some of the drivers are out there on the course.
Road courses have brought a different type of driver into the Nextel Cup series -- the road course ringer. These are specialists who don't run the series full time, though some dabble in it here and there. They are mainly brought in because their expertise on one or both of the two road courses can keep a struggling team alive in the ever-important points standings, even though more often than not that team's full-time driver could use the road course seat time in the worst way.
Because the top 35 teams in terms of owner's points are guaranteed a spot in the next race, those teams that are safely in the top 35 will keep their regular driver in the seat. Those that are struggling to get there, such as Michael Waltrip's newly formed Toyota team, might opt to put a road course ringer, or at least someone very adept at road racing like two-time former series champion Terry Labonte, in the car.
The Nextel Cup series championship is decided by the drivers' point standings. Putting a ringer in one of the top cars could cripple that driver's chance at making the Chase for the Championship. Thus, even though Jimmie Johnson's average finish at Infineon was 20.6 before this year's race (compared with Jeff Gordon's 9.9 average), there is no benefit to putting a more seasoned road course racer in his seat. But in Waltrip's case, he had qualified for just two races before the June 24 race, so putting Labonte in his car not only gave him a better chance to qualify, but a great chance to make up ground on the teams ahead of him for that all-important 35th spot in the owner's standings.
"It's not an easy decision for me to remove myself from the car, but I know it's for the betterment of our whole program," Waltrip said. "I know Terry's experience and road race savvy will breathe a breath of fresh air into my young NAPA team."
Labonte finished third last season at Infineon and was 35th in the June race. He also has six top-10 finishes at Watkins Glen, where he will again be driving the No. 55 car for Waltrip.
Many accomplished road racers run full time in the Cup series. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, Ricky Rudd and Mark Martin are just some of the drivers with good average finishes there. But there are also many who, to be kind, are best at turning left full time. Enter the road course ringer.
Boris Said, Ron Fellows, and Scott Pruett have produced 13 top-10 finishes in 35 road course starts in Nextel Cup. Said won the pole at Infineon in 2003, but no road course ringer has won a race since Mark Donohue turned the trick at Riverside in 1973.
These guys love competing with the series regulars. Some say they have never won because they have to adjust to maneuvering a big stock car around a course they are used to mastering in much lighter race cars. Some say they haven't won because they haven't been given a chance in one of the top rides. The truth is probably a little of both.
But regardless of why they haven't driven to Victory Lane, the road course ringers' value to struggling teams is unmistakable. In 2005, Labonte replaced Jason Leffler at Infineon with Leffler's owner's team 36th in points. Labonte's 12th-place finish put them in the top 35. Mission accomplished.
Labonte, just like many of the wines around Infineon, proved that bottled up talent is sometimes much better when aged properly. Waltrip hopes he can prove it again this year.