There’s this myth that comes around NASCAR twice a year during the Cup Series schedule. That myth is if you get yourself a “road course ringer,” you’ll have instant success in the race. Well that’s not been the case more often than not and it’s actually surprising to me that this is still a thing.
Working against the road course specialist is how the Cup Series is structured now with 36 charters in play. Because of this guaranteed spot, it’s harder than ever for good and competitive rides to be open and available for someone to jump in once or twice in a given year. Usually the driver of the car is too tied to the sponsor that they cannot step away, or they might be in the thick of the championship battle.
When there the top-35 rule, teams in the top-35 in owner points were guaranteed a starting spot, but that fluctuated each week, there was an opening for the specialists. Many times they would be brought in to try and get a decent run to get a team back into the top-35 or move them up so the normal driver could have a couple race buffer before they needed to worry again.
I took a look at road course ringers from the 2002 season through the 2016 season, 15 years worth of date over 30 races to see just how good, bad, or ugly the stats were. It is good to note that I’ve included Terry Labonte after he retired as a full-time driver and just stepped in for select races and Scott Speed who ran the road courses for a few teams after getting fired from Red Bull Racing. Basically if you were not running the full season that year, you counted.
That criteria narrows it down to 41 drivers with Boris Said leading the way with 28 starts (out of 30 races is actually pretty impressive) and then there’s a heap of drivers with one start. Notables there include Mattias Ekstrom, Jacques Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet Jr, and Klaus Graf. The driver who got the second most calls, to no surprise, is Ron Fellows with 18 starts. Somehow P.J. Jones managed to get 14 starts (I think his buddy Robby Gordon helped him get that number so high) and there is Scott Pruett (9) and super sub Terry Labonte (9) as well.
We’ll skip over wins, because there hasn’t been a ringer winner since Mark Donohue in 1973. Boris Said got the lone pole for the group, that coming in 2003 at Sonoma while driving for MB2 Motorsports. Here’s where the stats start to get sad. With a combined 159 starts between them, this group only scored 8 top-5 finishes (Pruett 3, Fellows 2, Said/Labonte/Jones 1) and 19 top-10s (Said 6, Pruett 5, Fellows 4, Labonte/Jones/Brian Simo/Max Papis 1).
Seven of those drivers have led at least one lap, with Fellows (24) having led the most. The rest art Labonte (17), Pruett (10), Said (10), Patrick Carpentier (7), Ekstrong (7), and Jorge Goeters (1). Scott Pruett has the best average starting position among those with more than one start at 19.11, and he also has the best average finishing position among those with more than one start at 17.11.
This is slightly more depressing for ringers; the last driver to score a top-10 finish was Boris Said in 2010, and the last top-5 finish was Ron Fellows in 2007. Basically a ringer hasn’t been effective for at least the last seven years as a means to score a great finish for your team. The average finish for the whole group is 28.33, and since 2013 it has been 31.28.
There are many reasons why the ringers are not good for these one off races, and that is exactly it. Trying to put these drivers in competitive cars has not been easy. The last driver to get a shot in what could be considered top equipment was Max Papis in 2013 filling in for Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing. Before that there’s Red Bull Racing that Boris Said drove for in 2010 or going further back there was Scott Pruett running a fourth car for Chip Ganassi Racing during some of the years.
A bigger piece and one that I think is sorely over looked is not only is it hard for these drivers to try and adapt to the Cup cars during one weekend, the competition is higher than ever when it comes to driver skills. It used to be only a handful of drivers could win at a road course, now every driver in the top-20 is a threat to win. There doesn’t seem to be any advantage anymore as drivers test and learn how to run road courses instead of just trying to forget they’re on the schedule.
In the end we won’t ever see the complete ending of the road course ringer coming in twice (soon to be three times) a year, but we’re getting close. There’s only five in this year’s Sonoma entry list (highest ever was 9 at Sonoma in 2004), but that is up from last year’s low of one at Sonoma (there was two at Watkins Glen). People will always flirt with the idea of success with a ringer, they just won’t ever see it.
Road course ringer stats 2002-2016
|Driver||Starts||Poles||Wins||Top-5s||Top-10s||Avg St||Avg Fin||Laps Led|
|Victor Gonzalez Jr||2||0||0||0||0||38.00||39.00||0|
|Nelson Piquet Jr||1||0||0||0||0||32.00||26.00||0|
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images