The idea of road course ringers has long been greater than their impact. In recent seasons, one-off or part-time drivers didn’t typically receive good equipment for efforts in Cup Series road races; thus, they had no real shot of contending for a win or influencing the result.
But the 2021 season — one in which the Cup Series schedule sees seven road races, including six in the regular season — has beckoned two Xfinity Series full-timers, each with fast cars and winning reputations. Kaulig Racing’s Allmendinger and Team Penske’s Cindric each have legitimate opportunities to disrupt the result, with the potential to claim spots in the finishing order that’d otherwise dole out a sizable points outlay coveted by full-time teams.
Both have wins at Road America on their résumé:
Allmendinger’s Kaulig ride ranks eighth in average median lap time on Cup Series road courses this season and fares better in average best lap time — capturing the average ranking of a team’s best lap in each race — ranking fifth. The latter would become more impactful with clean air.
He started 34th on the Daytona road course, the lineup decided by metric qualifying, which directly affected his time at or near the front of the field. He spent nearly 60% of the race outside the top 15, but ultimately finished seventh. On the day, he amassed an adjusted pass differential 54 positions better than his statistical expectation, the best surplus differential of any driver.
Traditional qualifying is on the docket today, which should help eliminate the need for Allmendinger to do so much heavy lifting. Regardless, his bases appear covered: He ranks first in surplus passing value among all drivers in Cup Series road course races this season. Additionally, his relentless maneuvering has been well assisted by crew chief Matt Swiderski, who’s pitted the 39-year-old at every chance under green-flag conditions when faced with toss-up situations where stage points hang in the balance.
Points, though, are inconsequential to Allmendinger, only the result mattering. Eschewing the need to stop during a stage break allows the team to inherit better positioning on the ensuing restart, which works to the driver’s advantage. He earned four positions on two restart attempts from inside the first seven rows at Daytona and presently ranks as one of the Xfinity Series’ top five restarters based on his 73.17% retention rate.
At Road America, talent tends to win out on the short runs, as the restart rows are relatively even compared to other tracks, including Sonoma, that feature more severe disparity in retention probability:
He might lack for elite speed — an eighth-place median lap ranking by itself won’t easily dispatch Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing — but outside of that, there isn’t an obvious reason (or potential excuse) as to why Allmendinger can’t contend for the win or a top result today at Road America.
Like Allmendinger, Cindric’s designation as an interloper is advantageous to his chances of winning the race outright. It’s important to know that there is but one clear strategic path, because otherwise it’d be easy to become skeptical of crew chief Miles Stanley’s ability to call a race. He’s retained Cindric’s running position on just 23.08% of green-flag pit cycles this season, giving up 40 positions on the racetrack across five starts, a dubious stat line if stages mattered to them at all.
But Stanley has let Cindric be Cindric, an unbridled charger whose eclectic upbringing in motorsports has provided him a mastery of certain road courses. He’s competed in just one Cup road race this season, at COTA, where he led four laps on slick tires in rainy conditions.
While his COTA performance is a highlight of his season and his road racing bona fides precede him — five of his 13 victories at NASCAR’s national level came on road courses — he’s worked to build his reputation as an efficient passer regardless of track type. At Atlanta, Richmond and Kansas, Cindric secured positive surplus pass differentials, nearly 61 positions above his statistical expectation; curiously, COTA was the one Cup race this season in which he failed to meet his expected differential (+7.03 based on his average running whereabouts), turning in a differential of -2.
Any reservations about his chances at pulling down a good finish at Road America may be alleviated by the speed potential of his car, displayed at COTA. Per its best lap time, his Penske Ford ranks as the fourth-fastest car on road courses this season, trailing only those of Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. It’s a different story for Cindric once clean air eludes him; his machine ranks 18th in median lap time, 17th fastest specifically in its lone road course race.
The ability to qualify creates an opportunity for Cindric, who time-trialed third at COTA. An improving passer and position defender in a car that, at its best, is among the fastest in the series allows for staying power at the front of the field. Strong initial track position offers any driver a better chance at dictating the race, but for Cindric, with no other intent but to score the best possible finish, it makes him an especially dangerous “ringer.”
Both Allmendinger and Cindric have realistic shots at punching back on a Cup Series field that’s bought into NASCAR’s brave new world of road racing, with cars and teams not previously made available to part-time road course specialists.