Wednesday, June 18, 2014

SONOMA WEEK: Don't Underestimate Road Course Ringers

SOURCE: Gary W. Green, Orlando Sentinel
True, but not accurate.

I love that phrase.  It fits perfectly when somebody says something that is technically true, but is still misleading.  I think of that when someone says “Who cares about road ringers? They never win anyway.”

While a ringer hasn’t won a Cup race on a road course since Mark Donohue’s win at Riverside in 1973, this does not mean ringers have never contended for wins.  Ringers add an extra dose of excitement to what are already two of the best races of the season.  In fact, Sonoma alone has seen a number of ringers come close to pulling the upset in just twenty-five runnings.

The 1991 race is well-known for NASCAR’s controversial decision to penalize leader Ricky Rudd for spinning leader Davey Allison in Turn 11.  However, the only reason both drivers were in a position to win was because of another late-race spin involving road ringer Tommy Kendall.  Kendall, the defending Trans-Am champion, qualified 5th the #42 Felix Sabates entry after Kyle Petty broke his leg in a wreck at Talladega.

On Lap 60 of the 74-lap race, Kendall took the lead from Rusty Wallace and appeared headed for a tremendous upset.  However, while leading with two laps to go, Mark Martin caught Kendall for the lead, and the two made contact in the hairpin of Turn 7.  The contact sent Martin into the guardrail and cut down Kendall’s right-front tire, forcing him to make an unscheduled stop.  Kendall finished 18th.

A savage accident in an IMSA race at Watkins Glen prevented Kendall from running the Cup race at the track that August, but in 1992, he returned to Sonoma and turned in another strong finish.  Kendall, this time driving for Jimmy Means, passed eventual series champion Alan Kulwicki coming off the final corner to snag a 13th-place finish.  Kendall ran the Sonoma race three more times and finished 16th in his last start at the track in 1998.

In 2000, Sonoma was the scene of Robby Gordon’s first top-ten finish in three seasons, and it came while driving for his own team.  Coming into the 2001 race, however, Gordon had still yet to run a full season in Cup, and a deal with Morgan-McClure Motorsports came apart after just five races.  He came to California as the road ringer in Jim Smith’s #7 NationsRent Ford, a team which had struggled to find consistency with regular driver Mike Wallace.

Gordon qualified 7th for the Sonoma race and found himself running right behind leader Jeff Gordon.  On Lap 85, Gordon, the point leader, locked the brakes in Turn 11 and Robby pounced, jumping into the top spot.  Robby held the lead for ten laps until, with ten laps to go, he blocked the lapped car of Kevin Harvick exiting Turn 7 and lost the lead to eventual winner Tony Stewart.  Robby had to settle for 2nd.

The run netted Robby a ride with Richard Childress Racing after Mike Skinner was injured at midseason, a union that paid dividends when he took the checkered flag in he season finale at New Hampshire.  Two years later, now as a full-time driver, Robby snagged his elusive Sonoma win and went on to sweep the road courses for the year.

The year before Robby’s Sonoma win, Jerry Nadeau found himself in position for a road course redemption of his own.  As a rookie in 1998, he had run off-course while battling Jeff Gordon for the lead and ended up crashing out of the race.  His career roller-coaster continued through a move to Melling Racing, then Hendrick Motorsports, with whom he scored his first Cup win at Atlanta in 2000.  However, just one week after Jimmie Johnson’s maiden Cup win at Fontana, Hendrick released Nadeau, leaving him without a ride.

At Sonoma, Nadeau climbed aboard the #44 Georgia-Pacific Dodge driven by struggling Nationwide competitor Roy “Buckshot” Jones.  The Petty Enterprises team had not won since 1999, and the untimely passing of Adam Petty in 2000 put the team’s future in doubt.

Pit strategy scrambled the running order for the 2002 Sonoma race, and after spinning on Lap 68, Nadeau stayed out on old tires and found himself leading for a restart on Lap 88 of 110.  As Ricky Rudd and Tony Stewart fought their way through the more than half-dozen cars who stayed out with Nadeau, the #44 pulled away to more than a two-second lead and looked to be on the way to victory.  He was still leading by more than one full second when the rear gear failed coming off Turn 11 with just two laps to go, ending his day with a 34th-place finish.

Like Robby before him, Nadeau earned a new full-time ride for the following season.  Driving for Nelson Bowers in the #01 U.S. Army Pontiac, Nadeau was running with the leaders before a brutal practice crash at Richmond ended his racing career.

In a strange twist, Nadeau was himself replaced by another road ringer for the 2003 race.  Fan favorite Boris Said had been instructing Cup Series drivers on road racing since the 1990s, but had just one top-ten finish in seven starts.  But on qualifying day, Said put the #01 on the pole and led a lap before finishing 6th.  Although Said has never competed in a full Cup season, he proved to be a competitive racer at Daytona.  In 2006, he won the pole for the Pepsi 400 at Daytona and was leading in the closing stages before a late pass dropped him to 4th - all in the second start for No Fear Racing, a single-car operation founded by longtime crew chief Frank Stoddard.

Said’s toughest competitors at Sonoma in 2003 were both race winner Robby Gordon and Canadian road ringer Ron Fellows, who led 21 laps in the #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. after the release of Steve Park.  Although Fellows enjoyed most of his road course success at Watkins Glen, where he twice finished 2nd in the Cup Series, he rejoined DEI at Sonoma in 2008 to run the road courses for rookie Regan Smith in the #01 Principal Financial Group Chevrolet.  With just four laps to go, Fellows was running inside the Top 5 when Kevin Harvick overdrove Turn 7 and collected 2nd and 3rd-place runners Tony Stewart and Jamie McMurray.  Lost in the dust, Fellows collected McMurray, dropping him to 29th.  Reports indicate Fellows retired from Cup racing last season.

Marcos Ambrose may be a full-time competitor today, but the reason for that dates back to that same race in 2008.  Ambrose was making his Cup debut as a road course ringer for the Wood Brothers, who had failed to make the field for the Daytona 500 despite having two-time winner Bill Elliott behind the wheel.  Ambrose qualified 7th, and though he never led, he remained near the leaders until Lap 83, when Elliott Sadler spun him entering Turn 7.  Ambrose’s transmission failed, and he ended up 42nd out of 43.  In the five Sonoma races since, Ambrose has finished no worse than 8th.

The list goes on and on.  Trans-Am driver Irv Hoerr finished 8th for Richard Jackson in 1990.  Brian Simo finishing 10th in a part-time Richard Childress Chevrolet in 2005.  Swedish DTM racer Mattias Ekstrom putting Brian Vickers’ #83 Red Bull Toyota out front for 7 laps in 2010.  Even two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte came out of retirement to drive the #96 DLP Chevrolet to a 3rd-place finish in 2006.

Yes, a road ringer hasn’t won since 1973.  Sure, there are hardly any on this year’s entry list at Sonoma.  But it would be misleading to say they’ve never been a threat to win.

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