Road Courses Could Be NASCAR's Other Wild Card Races

Mark SchaferContributor IJune 17, 2010

SONOMA, CA - JUNE 21:  Kasey Kahne, driver of the #9 Budweiser Dodge, leads the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at the Infineon Raceway on June 21, 2009 in Sonoma, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

They’re shaped differently than the other 20 tracks that NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series races on. They’re a lot longer than most of NASCAR tracks and they have these funky right-hand turns. They’re the road courses of Infineon and Watkins Glen. They can also be as much of a wild-card race as the three plate races before the chase.

This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup series will make their first of two stops on a road course as the teams travel to the wine country of Northern California to take on Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, CA.

While most of the talk for this weekend will be on Hamlin’s recent dominance, and road-course ringers, the fact is this weekend is still a points-paying race that will affect the top-12 in one way or another.

Most drivers would agree that in the “regular season” of NASCAR-the first 26 races that there are three races that are considered wild-card weekends where a driver considers it a good day as long as he doesn’t lose too many spots in the points. Those weekends are the season-opening Daytona 500, the April Talladega race, and the July Daytona race. All three of those races are the restrictor plate races.

Restrictor plate races can be wild and are definitely wild-card races when it comes to making the Chase or not. However, with the exception of July’s Daytona visit, the so-called “wild card” races are early in the season and a driver can still recover from a bad day at one of the wild card races.

When it comes to road course racing however, there is less time in the season for a team to recover and the races can be just as wild as the restrictor plate races.

So what makes the seemingly tame road-course races potential “wild-card” weekends?

First is the shape of the road-courses. These two tracks as mentioned above have more than four turns and they also have those pesky right-hand turns, that for 34 weeks out of the year the drivers of the NASCAR Sprint Cup don’t have to make.

However, despite the fact that the road courses are right-hand dominated and for some reason also a clockwise circuit instead of a counter-clockwise circuit, there have been very few times in which a right-hand turn has thrown off the racers.

While the right-hand turns may not bother the drivers, the shape of the track could, since both road course tracks, and especially this weekend’s race at Infineon, are raced on a very narrow racing track. Much of this weekend’s race will be a single file fight for position with very few places to pass.

So, that turns the road course race into a big pit-road race. As seen in last year’s Toyota-Savemart 350 at Infineon, having a good pit stop and a good pit stop at the right time will play a big part in this Sunday’s race.

While there are other races on the circuit that can turn into a pit-road strategy race, the length of the track plays a big part.

If a driver makes a mistake on pit-road and is forced to do a drive-through penalty, then they could be one of the few drivers to go a lap down in races that don’t have a ton of lapped traffic. So even though a driver could get the luck dog and a lap back, a top-10 car could wind up being a mid-20s car because of all the other traffic.

Then there are the road course ringers.

Two times a year a driver that has great success in sports cars or F1 or other road-heavy racing series across the world could join the competition. Although they may be driving cars that on oval tracks are bringing the rear, some of these cars could lead laps or even bring home a surprise victory.

Experts will tell you that no road course ringer has ever won at these tracks, and they are correct, but to use a term from other sports that means that one of the ringers could be due for a victory.

The other two wild card tracks, Daytona and Talladega, are known for having surprise pole sitters that usually don’t fare too well in the race, and the road courses can also be a home for a surprise pole sitter, although in the unconventional sense.

With road course ringers it seems that those should be the drivers sitting in p-1. However, sense 2006 the regular guys, the drivers driving week in and week out for the Sprint Cup, have been the pole-sitters in every single road-course race.

A pole does not however ensure a win at the road courses; since 2006 only one pole sitter went on to claim victory. Kyle Busch did it in 2008 at Watkins Glen, but he was only granted the pole for that race because he was the points leader and qualifying had been rained out.

Even though the two road courses may not be considered a wild card weekend like Daytona or Talladega, they can very well turn out to be a wild weekend for the points racers. With a narrow track, road racing experts and pit strategy it could turn out to be a very wild weekend.