Ranking the Best Road-Course Drivers in the Sprint Cup Series
Say it ain't so, Said Heads.
Our apologies to all those loyal crazies who have long rooted for the man with the most fabulous head of hair in auto racing, but it's true. While Boris Said is entered in this Sunday's Toyota SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California, you can forget all that stuff about him being a road-course ringer.
It's a myth.
The days of so-called road-course ringers stepping in to sub for regulars in NASCAR's premier series because their specialty was making right turns as well as left ones better than just about all the guys who normally make their living on ovals are over.
In truth, they never really existed anyway. Said, for instance, has long been billed as a road-course ringer, yet he's never had a top-five finish in 14 career starts at Sonoma and has only one in 13 career starts at Watkins Glen International. His career average finishes at the two road courses: 20.6 at Sonoma and 24.2 at The Glen.
There is too much sponsorship money invested in the Sprint Cup regulars these days, and their teams in turn have frequently invested piles of money in trying to improve their road-course programs. The end result has been that the NASCAR regulars these days are much better than their predecessors on the challenging road courses, plus no driver in the points race is going to give up his seat for a supposed one- or two-week wonder—leaving guys like Said in underfunded rides, if they can find one at all, or left to field one themselves.
Read on to see where the regulars rank in their road-course prowess.
10. Brad Keselowski
While it's true that Keselowski has yet to win a Cup race on either of the two road courses, he's obviously closing in on it at The Glen. He won the Nationwide Series race there last August and has finished second there in each of the last three Cup races.
After battling Ambrose door-to-door on the final lap in that 2012 race, which began with Busch leading, an exhausted Keselowski sat on a concrete barrier on pit road and made a statement that again made us wonder why in the world NASCAR continues to resist putting more road courses on the schedule.
"That's how racing should be," he told ESPN.com.
9. AJ Allmendinger
AJ Allmendinger was considered a formidable road-course racer on the open-wheel side before he made the jump to NASCAR in 2006.
So it was no surprise when the JTG/Daugherty race team that Allmendinger now drives for invested in a test at Sonoma earlier this month—one that it hopes will pay immediate dividends. In five previous career starts at the 2.52-mile track that features 11 or 12 turns depending on who's counting them and how, Allmendinger has finished as high as seventh and no lower than 13th in all but his first time there in 2008.
At Watkins Glen, Allmendinger has been even better. He qualifies well there—having started fourth, second and fourth in his last three outings—and has finished as high as fourth and never worse than 13th in five career starts.
8. Carl Edwards
The argument could be made that Carl Edwards is now the best road-course racer who has yet to win at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
His average Cup finish of 8.8 in nine career starts at The Glen ranks fifth in the Sprint Cup Series among active drivers, behind only Keselowski, Ambrose, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. And at Sonoma, his average career finish of 15.6, while not overly impressive, still ranks eighth among active drivers. He's had a pair of top-five and four top-10 finishes, including thirds in two of the last three races (in 2011 and last year).
7. Martin Truex Jr.
While there is little in his background to explain why Martin Truex Jr. is stout on road courses, the fact remains that he simply is.
He won at Sonoma last year in the No. 56 Toyota fielded by Michael Waltrip Racing, but he now drives the No. 78 Chevy for Furniture Row Racing. Truex thus broke a 218-race winless streak that was the second-longest in series history behind only the 226-race winless streak Bill Elliott suffered through between victories in 2001 and 2007.
But it wasn't a fluke.
Truex has only one other top-10 finish at Sonoma in eight career starts, but he owns three top-five and five top-10 finishes in eight career starts at Watkins Glen, where he finished third last year.
6. Jimmie Johnson
There was a time not too long ago when Jimmie Johnson considered himself lacking on road courses.
So the six-time Cup champion did something about it. He worked his tail off to get better on the twists and turns of Sonoma and Watkins Glen until it finally started paying consistent and solid dividends.
That led to a breakthrough win at Sonoma in 2010, and he's now working on a streak of five consecutive finishes of ninth or better. So what if the win was more or less handed to him when Ambrose, the leader who appeared to be in command, stalled his car during a caution and gave up the lead and almost certain victory as a result?
"It was definitely a gift kind of handed to us," Johnson told The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). While true to a certain degree, it was all his hard work that enabled him to improve as a driver on road courses that put him in position to capitalize on Ambrose's mistake.
At Watkins Glen, he used to have one good outing, then a bad one. But he's now working on a streak of three top-10 finishes in a row, including a third in 2012. He also finished third in 2007, fourth in 2003 and fifth in 2005, yet it remains one of only four Cup tracks where he has yet to register a win.
5. Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch can pretty much drive anything, anywhere. So it's no surprised that he's proved himself more than adequate on NASCAR's road courses.
He's much better overall at Watkins Glen than he is at Sonoma, but he did win at Sonoma in 2008. This year, he will be looking to break a string of less-than-stellar finishes there—having finished 35th last year, 17th in 2012, 39th in 2010 and 22nd in 2009 when he arrived at the track as he defending race champion. His best finish in the last five years was 11th in 2011.
At The Glen, however, Busch's average finish of 8.1 over nine career starts ranks behind only Keselowski, Ambrose and Stewart among active drivers. He's also one of only three active drivers who have led 188 laps or more in their career at the 2.45-mile track (with the others being Stewart and Jeff Gordon).
4. Clint Bowyer
When Clint Bowyer fended off Kurt Busch to win at Sonoma in 2012, Kyle's older brother had a hard time believing he had been bested on a road course by Bowyer.
"I just kept thinking, 'He's a dirt late-model racer from the Midwest; there's no way he's going to be able to run the road course,'" Busch told Nate Ryan of USA Today."And he did. He did great."
Bowyer has continued to do well on the two road courses in NASCAR's premier series, particularly at Sonoma where he's second only to Gordon among active drivers with an average career finish of 9.1 over eight career races.
In addition to his 2012 win, he has finished in the top five four other times and in the top 10 a total of six. He has finished fourth a total of three times at a track where frequently one great finish does not lead to another the following year for many drivers, including previous race winners like Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne.
Bowyer hasn't been nearly as good at Watkins Glen, but he hasn't been horrible, either. And he seems to get better every time he visits, finishing a career-high fourth there in 2012 and then starting second and finishing sixth last year.
3. Tony Stewart
It's no secret that Stewart long ago was proclaimed perhaps the most versatile driver in NASCAR, so it's a natural that he's one of the best on the road courses.
"Tony is easily the most versatile driver I've seen since the likes of A.J. Foyt," none other than Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip wrote for FOXSports.com last June.
With five career wins at Watkins Glen and two at Sonoma, his expertise on road courses cannot be questioned. In fact, breaking it down further, he ranks third among active drivers with an average finish of 7.9 at Watkins Glen and fourth among active drivers with an average finish of 12.0 at Sonoma.
No other Sprint Cup driver—not even the great Gordon, who owns a total of nine wins at the two road courses—can claim that he's been consistent enough at both places to rank in the top four in average finishes. In fact, no other driver even comes close to Stewart in that regard.
2. Marcos Ambrose
Ambrose is close to reigning at the top of this list. But the one race he blew at Sonoma in 2010 always seems to come up in the conversation, and it keeps him from being No. 1.
Forget the fact that Ambrose doesn't have the career stats to challenge a Stewart or Gordon. His background as a road racer in his native Australia and the way he can work his way around Sonoma and Watkins Glen in cars that have not been the equal of the equipment in the hands of Stewart, Gordon and others speaks for itself.
But there was that race in 2010, when Ambrose was in total command and stalled out his car during a caution while trying to save fuel with six laps to go. He fell off the pace being set by the pace car as a result and had to give up the lead in the race that was won instead by Johnson.
In six starts overall at Sonoma, he owns two top-five and five top-10 finishes and has qualified extraordinarily well, with an average starting position of 4.5. Only a 42nd-place finish in his very first start—in 2008 with Wood Brothers Racing—mars his career record, and that was because the transmission in his car gave out on Lap 83 of the 112-lap event after he had qualified seventh.
Last year, he started second and finished seventh; and in 2012, he started from the pole and finished eighth. In each of his three others starts, he's finished sixth or better—and this road course is not the one he's best at in NASCAR.
That would be Watkins Glen, where he's won twice and finished in the top five in five of six career starts.
1. Jeff Gordon
Gordon has led the stunning total of 454 laps in his career at Sonoma. He hasn't won at the track since 2006, but he's finished ninth or better in eight consecutive races and in 10 of the last 11. He's also finished second in two of the last three races.
Those numbers speak for themselves, and that's why Gordon remains No. 1 among NASCAR's road-course racers.
Gordon's average finish of 8.24 in his career at Sonoma is the best of all active Sprint Cup drivers, as is his total of five victories. He also has won five poles at the track, where in 21 career starts he owns not just the five wins but also 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes.
Then there is his body of work at Watkins Glen, where he has won four times.
Perhaps it has been a while since he's won at either road course, but that doesn't mean he's not still the best. Until Stewart matches him in career wins or perhaps Ambrose finally breaks through at Sonoma, it's Gordon's title to hold.