NASCAR Sprint Cup: Ranking the Toughest Tracks on the Circuit
"Race the race track" is a common quote that comes from the mouth of crew chiefs and team owners in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. Sometimes it comes down to not beating yourself.
Some tracks are new, some are old, some are tougher on equipment, some are tougher on tires. But there is no doubt that drivers and teams take into account the race track they're running on and the way it might change and affect the way their car handles.
Sometimes, the mechanics of the actual car fade away and leave you with tracks that simply provide for rougher racing. Finding the balance of critical mechanical and aerodynamics, as well as putting yourself in the correct position not to be wrecked, are crucial to end up in victory lane.
Here, I examine what I believe to be the 10 toughest tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup series circuit, by looking at both their mechanics and the effect it has on driver aggression.
No. 10: New Hampshire Motor Speedway
The New Hampshire Motor Speedway is usually described with one word: flat.
The lack of banking in the turns throws drivers and crew chiefs a curveball when trying to find the balance of their car. It is crucial that the car sticks to the track going into the corner without sliding, and also be able to launch up off the corner to put yourself in a position to pass.
That brings up another point about the New Hampshire track: passing. It's almost impossible to pass on the outside at New Hampshire, though some daring drivers have made it stick.
The lack of a place to pass usually leads to the "dive-bomb" technique. Here, drivers simply try to out-brake each other entering into either corner. This is usually successful, but sometimes leads to some driver being cut off on the exit.
The layout of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, along with the wrench it throws at teams—but ultimate ability to eventually pass, leaves it at #10 on my list.
No. 9: Kentucky Speedway
Kentucky Speedway, the new kid on the block. The NASCAR Sprint Cup series ran their first event at the Speedway in 2011, and for that reason alone, it makes my list of toughest tracks.
Going to a track for the first time is an extremely difficult thing to do—even if some teams had tested cars at the track in the past. A race weekend brings a totally different mindset for drivers and teams, and once 42 other cars get on the track at the same time, you have a totally different ballgame.
Crew chiefs and teams had to put forth extra effort in practice sessions to make the cars even drive straight for qualifying and the race.
Eventually, Kentucky Speedway may end up as just another 1.5 mile downforce race track but for the first time, it probably caused a few fits.
No. 8: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana
While Auto Club Speedway may not seem like a challenge, it is one of NASCAR's most aerodynamic-sensative race tracks. Cars can carry speeds upwards of 200+ miles per hour entering either of the turns, which makes straightaway down force even more important.
Take a look at next year's Fontana race, if you get the chance. Unfortunately, some people resort to calling the race boring because there aren't many huge wrecks.
If you can truly respect the mechanical side of NASCAR, watch the front of the race cars.
If the front of the car is resting all the way down on the race track, you'll notice those teams are running in the top five. If there is a space between the track and bottom of the cars nose, those teams are 5-6 laps down.
For the reason that occurs, I'm in the wrong business. But since it is difficult for the average fan to know why this difference occurs, imagine how hard it is for a crew chief to actually make it happen.
No. 7: Martinsville Speedway
Excuse me, pardon me, coming though! This is the essence of Martinsville Speedway. Probably not as polite. It has long been the case that Martinsville Speedway is a one-groove, bottom lane race track.
So, if you need to get around a car and the lane is blocked, what else can you do?
The bump n' run is not clearer anywhere than Martinsville. Drivers will bump anyone to get a checkered flag, and in a 2011 sprint race, Kevin Harvick decided Dale Earnhardt Jr. was nobody special and snatched the lead with three laps to go.
It happens because it is the only way to pass at Martinsville, and that's exactly what makes it exciting (and extremely difficult). Less of the mechanical and engineering side of NASCAR occurs.
Here, we're talking about hurt feelings and angry tempers. Hurt feelings and angry drivers will make any road hard to drive on. Ever tried to drive through Washington DC at rush hour? It's a lot like Martinsville.
No. 6: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
"Pit, pit, pit! Four tires, four tires!" is the common call from atop the pit box at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track is simply old. Here tire wear is incredibly important, more so than the majority of other NASCAR tracks.
Not only because the tires fall off and create slower lap times, but also because certain tires wear more easily than others. The right front tire is always a concern at Indy, and it is the job of crew chiefs to ensure their driver does not abuse the right front tire so badly that the car rockets into the wall.
The drivers want to go fast, it's the Brickyard, it's Indianapolis, they want to win. But sometimes, and especially here, slow and steady might just win the race.
Basically, the most difficult part of Indy (and the reason it makes my list), is because the crew chief has to sometimes tell a race car driver to slow down to be better in the end. Good luck with that one.
No. 5: Pocono Raceway
The Tricky Triangle. A perfect way to start explaining why this track makes the list. A race track, as mentioned previously, can be tough to get a handle on. But throw in the fact that all three turns are completely different and cars are carrying 200+ miles per hour into one of them, and you've got a big task ahead.
Common radio chatter is, "Good in one and two, bad in three" or "Good in three, bad in one and two" and the crew chief has to eventually realize the car cannot be perfect in all three turns, because they are all vastly different. A change to help one might hurt the other.
Throughout the Pocono race weekends, crew chiefs are struggling to find that perfect balance between the cars handling in each of the turns, and it is no cake walk.
Few teams have been able to conquer Pocono Raceway in recent years, and I expect the trend to continue.
No. 4: Daytona International Speedway
There was a country music song that went "Find out who your friends are..." and that sums up Daytona International Speedway perfectly.
Recently, with the addition of the two-car tandem drafting at Daytona, the end of the races have become extremely exciting and sometimes bring out the tempers in drivers. With the recent repaving of Daytona, less handling complaints have come from the mouth of drivers and instead, it has turned into one big radio circus.
Drivers are talking to each other during the middle of the race on the radio. One spotter is spotting for two cars. Teams have to figure out how to pit on the same lap. People are going to the back of the field to "pick up" another driver.
It's like trying to plan a high school prom night.
Daytona has become increasingly difficult with these changes to figure out who exactly you can trust to push you to victory, and which teams you want to align yourself with—preferably a teammate.
Sometimes the race comes down to team orders, so the difficulty lies in "how trusting and honest is your team?"
No. 3: Richmond International Raceway
Richmond is confused. She isn't sure if she wants to race like an aerodynamic track or a short track. That is exactly what makes it so difficult to get a handle on.
Previously, I showed how some tracks difficulties lie in engineering and others lie in layout and driver temperament. At Richmond International Raceway, it's both.
Your race car needs to handle well in order to make passes here, unlike at a place like Martinsville where the cars run so close together you can just move someone without wrecking them totally.
The balance of down force and temper make Richmond one of NASCAR's tougher tracks.
No. 2: Darlington Raceway
Darlington Raceway, the Lady in Black. This track is so unique and so challenging that it pulls in at number two on the list.
Darlington Raceway is one of NASCAR's historic venues and even after being on the circuit year after year, it still hasn't gotten any easier—and it isn't going to.
The preferred racing groove here is right around the top, right next to the outside wall and passing usually occurs with the previously-mentioned "dive-bomb" maneuver. The problem with racing next to a concrete wall for 500 miles is that you might (and probably will) mess up and hit it. The majority of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers leave Darlington with the right side of their car scratched.
It doesn't take much more explanation than having the 43 best drivers in the world banging their cars into the wall to show you just how difficult of a track this is to handle.
No. 1: Infineon Raceway
Here is the out-of-the-ordinary number one Toughest Track on the Sprint Cup schedule: Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.
While this tops the list of toughest tracks, it wouldn't have less than three or four years ago. Recently, NASCAR has seen increased drama and interest on track activity at its road course events, specifically in Sonoma.
Drivers have not been taking it easy on each other at Infineon. Bumping, accidentally spinning out and sometimes flat-out wrecking another car. So much so that the road race has turned into a total wildcard as far as who will end up in victory lane.
Road racing was hard enough for drivers whose careers are going left—but the recent added drama, crashes and drivers complaining of a lack of on-track respect puts Infineon over the top as the toughest track—because you just don't know what's going to happen next. At any and every moment.