Road-Course Specialists Could Steal a NASCAR Chase Spot at Sonoma

Monte Dutton@@monteduttonFeatured ColumnistJune 21, 2016

A road-course victory has put AJ Allmendinger in the Chase once before.
A road-course victory has put AJ Allmendinger in the Chase once before.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The term "road-course ringer," or specialist, doesn't have the same connotation it once did in NASCAR.

Where once Sprint Cup teams entered extra cars and put road-racing specialists like Boris Said and Ron Fellows in the field at the series' two road courses, Sonoma (California) and Watkins Glen (New York), now the term mainly refers to Cup regulars who are particularly adept at road courses.

All-Time Road-Course Victories
Jeff Gordon9
Tony Stewart7
Bobby Allison6
Richard Petty6
Rusty Wallace6
Dan Gurney5
Tim Richmond5
Darrell Waltrip5
Kyle Busch4
Mark Martin4
David Pearson4

There's AJ Allmendinger, for instance, who won at Watkins Glen on August 10, 2014, and made the Chase that year as a result. He led 29 of the 90 laps that day.

"That is why I enjoy the road courses, which has always been my background," Allmendinger said. "I feel like, as a driver, you can make just a little bit more of a difference."

Sunday's Cup race in Sonoma could punch the ticket that puts Allmendinger in the Chase, which, in turn, would give him a ticket in the title lottery. He is 19th in the point standings. Paul Menard, another veteran road racer, is 22nd. Danica Patrick is 25th.

The Chase is 11 races away. Sixteen drivers make it. Every driver outside the top 16 in points who wins a race prevents a driver ahead of him (or her) who has not won a race from making it.

“The ultimate goal is to go out there and win the race,” Allmendinger said. “The last couple of years we kind of shot ourselves in the foot. We’ve just got to be smart and make sure everything that we do is on point and we make no mistakes.”

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Allmendinger, Menard and Patrick, along with every other driver who has not won yet, go to Sonoma unworried about torpedoes. They go there full steam ahead. Though no longer competing in NASCAR, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose won their only two Cup races on road courses.

What all of the above does not make likely is that an Allmendinger, a Menard or a Patrick will win on Sunday. They have lots of company.

“You try and go out there and try to have the mindset that it’s just another weekend, but we know it’s not," Allmendinger said.

No one is more desperate for a victory than Tony Stewart, who is by no means a road-racing specialist but is the second best in road-course victories all-time with seven. The best drivers are capable of winning anywhere, which is why Kyle Busch has won four such races and why Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. have also won at Sonoma or Watkins Glen.

“It’s different, for sure," Kyle Busch said. "There are a lot of guys out there who have the road-racing background, who know a heck of a lot more about road racing and technique than we do. The neat thing about road racing is just being able to have, it’s like, a vacation weekend.

"You just go out there and have fun and do the best you can and you’ll either do really well or you’ll do really badly, and you just go on to the next one."

Martin Truex Jr. (left) has won at Sonoma. Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't.
Martin Truex Jr. (left) has won at Sonoma. Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't.Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

“I was personally very proud of that Sonoma victory,” Truex said. “Winning on a road course shows that you can do more than just turn left in your race car."

The 10 drivers who have already won races this season see this event as fun. They feel no great pressure.

“Sonoma is a neat place," Kyle Busch said. "It’s a cool area to go to up into, wine country. I’ve always enjoyed road-course racing....It’s a fun race track. The cars get grouped a lot closer together there than at Watkins Glen, so braking is a lot tougher getting into Turn 4, Turn 7 and especially Turn 11."

Those who have no secure spot in the Chase locked up can ill afford a mistake.

"When it comes to strategy, it’s a lot more difficult to figure out Sonoma,” Allmendinger said. “If you get a yellow flag at the wrong time and you get a guy that gets on new tires, it makes a big difference and he can drive through the field. It’s a tough race on equipment, on strategy, on the crew chief, on the driver and pit stops are important. There’s a lot that goes on during that race.”

They've got nothing to lose, everything to gain and no room for error.

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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.