Sunday marks the first road course race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, as the series takes on the 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 today at 3 p.m. eastern.
While some fans like road course races and others can’t stand them, the novelty of racing on a non-oval makes road course racing good for NASCAR.
The Cup Series schedule has featured just two road course races since 1988, and never more than three in the modern era (since 1972). Watkins Glen has hosted the Cup Series since 1986, and Sonoma, the site of today’s event, has since 1989. This year’s XFinity Series schedule features road course races at Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and Road America, while the Camping World Truck Series will run one road course, at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.
Road course racing offers a change of pace from typical NASCAR events which are often criticized as cars going in circles and making hundreds of consecutive left turns.
The road course events get new competitors involved in NASCAR, as road course specialists known as “road ringers” often run at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. While no road ringer has won a Cup Series race since Dan Gurney in 1973 and none have even contended for a win in the last decade, any time new drivers get involved, it can’t be a bad thing for the sport, especially when most of these ringers are regulars in other racing series and can provide cross-promotional benefits to both NASCAR and the other series.
The lack of success of the road ringers in recent years is because many NASCAR stars have put more effort into road course preparation in recent years, taking lessons from road racing experts or logging hundreds of laps in simulators in the days and weeks leading up to each road course event. Road course races have also been won on several occasions by full-time Cup Series drivers with road racing in their background: Juan Pablo Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose and Robby Gordon.
Another reason road course racing is good for the sports is because the best drivers, and not just the fastest cars, are the ones who tend to run up front. More skill is involved in turning both right and left for over ten unique turns per lap than at the typical NASCAR event on a wide, sweeping track with identical turns on each end.
Beyond the driving skill needed to be successful in road course racing, these races have multiple layers of added strategy, which will be even more pronounced in NASCAR’s new “stage racing” format. Cars can pit without losing a lap, so each team will try to pick the most optimal times for them to pit to give them the best track position at the end of the race. Oval-track races often see everyone on the same pit cycle and strategy, but the 38 cars in today’s race could easily use at least a half-dozen different strategies during the race.
The Cup Series schedule will add a third road course race in 2018, as the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway will be run on a “roval” combination of the oval and the infield road course. This will add a road course race to NASCAR’s playoffs (formerly “The Chase”), adding a new element to the 10-race sequence that determines the season champion as a potential “wild card” in the third and final race of the playoffs’ first round.
But we don’t have to wait until 2018 for a thrilling road course event–that will come today, as every time NASCAR turns left and right, the skill and strategy it takes to win and the uniqueness of the venue creates excitement for the fans.
Toyota/Save Mart 350
Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1
Row 1: Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray
Row 2: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch
Row 3: A.J. Allmendinger, Danica Patrick
Row 4: Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott
Row 5: Chris Buescher, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Row 6: Daniel Suarez, Kevin Harvick
Row 7: Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin
Row 8: Paul Menard, Michael McDowell
Row 9: Kurt Busch, Joey Logano
Row 10: Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman
Row 11: Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 12: Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson
Row 13: Trevor Bayne, Billy Johnson
Row 14: Matt DiBenedetto, David Ragan
Row 15: Cole Whitt, Erik Jones
Row 16: Landon Cassill, Alon Day
Row 17: Josh Bilicki, Boris Said
Row 18: Ty Dillon, Kevin O’Connell
Row 19: Tommy Regan, Matt Kenseth
Toyota/Save Mart 350 Winners
1989 Ricky Rudd
1990 Rusty Wallace
1991 Davey Allison
1992 Ernie Irvan
1993 Geoffrey Bodine
1994 Ernie Irvan
1995 Dale Earnhardt
1996 Rusty Wallace
1997 Mark Martin
1998 Jeff Gordon
1999 Jeff Gordon
2000 Jeff Gordon
2001 Tony Stewart
2002 Ricky Rudd
2003 Robby Gordon
2004 Jeff Gordon
2005 Tony Stewart
2006 Jeff Gordon
2007 Juan Pablo Montoya
2008 Kyle Busch
2009 Kasey Kahne
2010 Jimmie Johnson
2011 Kurt Busch
2012 Clint Bowyer
2013 Martin Truex Jr.
2014 Carl Edwards
2015 Kyle Busch
2016 Tony Stewart