Analysis: Dirt racing pedigrees translate to road course success


There’s a through line from dirt open-wheel racing to success in NASCAR road course races, a connection that dates back four decades.

Five of Tim Richmond’s 13 career race wins took place on road courses, including four at the 2.62-mile Riverside Speedway in California. Jeff Gordon secured 10 road course victories, with six in a row emanating from 1997-2000. Tony Stewart earned a combined eight wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, including his final Cup Series triumph in 2016 at the former.

That apparent translation from dirt open-wheel racing to Cup Series road races persists with the recent successes of Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, both road course race winners in 2021.

Larson sees the connection between dirt racing and road racing, pinpointing the “feel” of his vehicle as the denominator linking the two forms of driving.

“I’ve always felt like I can feel the car better — a lot better — on a road course because you get more movement of the car,” Larson said. “On an oval, we’re just kind of static the whole time. It’s hard for me to feel because there is no roll or anything like that. On a road course, you can feel the car flex up.”

Larson’s preference for feeling the weight transfer of his car while turning (the “roll”) stems from his formative years on dirt, a genre of auto racing he continues to frequent with success. It’s the feeling with which he’s most familiar, one that assists him in traversing through corners.

“It just kind of fits my brain a little bit better,” he said.

Through 20 career Cup Series starts on road courses, Larson holds a track type-specific Production in Equal Equipment Rating of 2.075, a formidable mark boosted by his two victories this season at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Prior to this season, his first behind the wheel for road course stalwart Hendrick Motorsports, he displayed flashes of road course brilliance including three pole wins at Sonoma and a 2018 Roval showing in which he led a race-high 43% of the contest in what timing and scoring data measured as the fastest car of the event.

This season, piloting a Hendrick car that ranks second in average median lap time on road courses (trailing only teammate Chase Elliott), Larson has been diligent on offense and stingy on defense when it comes to procuring and protecting track position. He ranks third in position retention rate on restarts (88%) and secured surplus adjusted pass differentials 15 and 11 positions beyond his statistical expectation in his wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, respectively.

Road course races tend to focus exclusively on track position — the Roval included — and Larson is one of a few drivers who can be counted on to create more than his anticipated share of positions. As such, he’s among the early betting favorites for the win in Sunday’s playoff race.

Not quite a favorite but certainly capable of fetching a win this weekend is Bell, a fellow dirt track graduate and Larson’s arch rival every winter at the Chili Bowl Nationals. His win this past February on Daytona’s road course was a surprise in the moment but a more understood outcome with the benefit of hindsight. He, like Larson, sees the link from high-banked dirt bullrings to sprawling road courses with riddling corners.

“I would say the big thing is just being able to adapt,” Bell said. “Because the corners are all so different and it’s all really unique. (In) dirt track racing, you’re always having to adapt and improvise. And I think that really relates to road course racing.”

Bell is one of the best short-run road course racers currently in the Cup Series. His 94.12% position retention rate on restarts ranks second (trailing Martin Truex Jr.’s 94.74% rate) as does his 18 position-net gain within two laps of the restart (only Joey Logano, with +19, has a higher total).

Through his work with driving coach Michael Self, Bell has embraced the difficulty of a motorsport genre foreign to those with dirt-centric upbringings. Road racing is now more comfortable, reminding him of the “feel” to which he’s grown accustomed.

“I enjoy the challenge of it,” he said. “You’re slipping and sliding and you can really feel the car move around, which is something a little bit different than the short tracks or the mile-and-a-halves.”

The competitive link from dirt to right-hand corners extends to Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe. Both drivers have delivered memorable road course performances this season.

Reddick captured three stage victories on road courses this past summer and, after working to improve his road racing acumen with former Formula 1 and NASCAR driver Scott Speed, is enjoying a heightened passing acumen.

His -5.93% surplus passing value on road courses last year ranked as the second-worst mark of any Cup driver over the last two seasons. This year, his +1.03% SPV fares as the 10th best, good enough for a pass differential 28 positions better than his statistical expectation.

Briscoe, nurtured through Ford’s driver development efforts heavy on road racing, scored a win on the Roval in the 2018 Xfinity Series race. He was in position to contend for a victory this year in the waning laps of the Indianapolis road course race before contact with Denny Hamlin and a flubbed corner squashed his chance at a good finish. All three of his top-10 finishes this season came on road courses. Races at COTA and Indianapolis were the only contests in which Briscoe and his car ranked inside the top 10 for median lap time.

This current generation of former dirt racers are picking up where their predecessors left off, among NASCAR’s consummate favorites for wins and sterling performances on road courses.

Sunday Cup race at Sonoma Raceway: Start time, TV info, weather


The Cup Series heads to wine country to compete on the 1.99-mile road course at Sonoma Raceway. This race leads into the final off weekend of the season. After the break, the series races 20 consecutive weekends. NBC and USA will broadcast those races.

Details for Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: Adam Devine will give the command to start engines at 3:38 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:50 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 12:30 p.m. … Drivers meeting is at 2:45 p.m. … Driver intros are at 3 p.m. … Earl Smith, pastor for the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers, will give the invocation at 3:30 p.m. … Tiffany Woys will perform the national anthem at 3:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 110 laps (218.9 miles) on the 1.99-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 55.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 6 p.m. Saturday

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the race at 3:30 p.m. … Coverage begins at 2 p.m. on FS1 and switches to Fox at 3 p.m. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. and also will stream at SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.


FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Daniel Suarez won his first career Cup race last year at Sonoma. Chris Buescher finished second. Michael McDowell placed third.


Friday 5: Kyle Busch, Randall Burnett forming potent combination

Rick Hendrick hopes rough driving settles down after Chase Elliott suspension

Concussion-like symptoms sideline Noah Gragson

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival 

NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation

Drivers to watch at Sonoma Raceway 

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron, Kyle Busch rank 1-2

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Sonoma Raceway


Cup and Xfinity teams will be on track Saturday at Sonoma Raceway.

Cup teams will practice and qualify for Sunday’s race. Xfinity teams will qualify and race Saturday on the 1.99-mile road course in Northern California.

Sonoma Raceway


Saturday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 75 degrees. Forecast is for mostly cloudy skies, a high of 71 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race.

Saturday, June 10

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 3 – 4 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Cup practice  (FS2)
  • 6 – 7 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS2)
  • 8 p.m. — Xfinity race (79 laps, 156.95 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Alpha Prime Racing’s road woes don’t keep team from competing


SONOMA, Calif. — Alpha Prime Racing owner Tommy Joe Martins laughs. He can. His Xfinity Series cars all are here at Sonoma Raceway.

At one point last week, it was not certain if his team’s cars would make it to Portland International Raceway.

“It was probably the toughest professional week I’ve had of my NASCAR career,” Martins told NBC Sports on Friday at Sonoma.

MORE: Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma

The Alpha Prime Racing team had both its trucks break down and one of its haulers have mechanical issues last week on the way to the Pacific Northwest.

“We basically sent four pieces of equipment on the road and three of them broke,” Martins said.

For a time, the car Sage Karam is driving this weekend at Sonoma was left in a hauler in Kansas City because there wasn’t room in the dually Martins sent. It had room only for the car that was needed at Portland and other equipment. Karam’s car, which was to be a backup at Portland, was left behind.

“It’s a very helpless feeling when you feel like your stuff is stuck on the side of the road,” Martins said.

He still has one truck still in St. Louis and another in Oregon. Martins estimates the mechanical issues will cost his team about $50,000 when everything is totaled.

Trouble started well before the team left its Mooresville, North Carolina, race shop for Portland.

The Xfinity Series race at Charlotte was scheduled to run May 27. Rain forced that event to be rescheduled to May 29. Martins said the team had planned to send its trucks to Portland on May 28. With the race pushed back to the 29th, the travel schedule tightened.

It got worse.

After the Xfinity race started, rain came. With the Coca-Cola 600 scheduled for 3 p.m. ET that day – after being delayed by rain from Sunday – the rest of the Xfinity race was pushed back until after the 600. That further tightened the window on Xfinity teams to make it to Portland.

The Xfinity race ended around 11:30 p.m. ET on May 29. Alpha Prime Racing’s haulers left the shop around 6 a.m. ET on May 30.

The two trucks traveled together until issues in St. Louis.

The truck hauling the Nos. 44 and 45 cars had engine issues in St. Louis. The other truck kept going until it had mechanical issues with its hauler in Kansas City. The air bags on the hauler failed.

So, Alpha Prime Racing had a truck that worked in Kansas City with a hauler that didn’t and a truck that didn’t work in St. Louis with a hauler that did.

The truck in Kansas City went back to St. Louis to attach to the hauler and take those cars and equipment to Portland. Martins then had to find something to haul the stranded equipment in Kansas City and a driver. He eventually did. A dually left North Carolina for Kansas City. Once there, what fit in the dually was taken to Portland and what didn’t, including Karam’s Sonoma car stayed behind.

Yet, more trouble was headed for Martins and his team.

The truck that had gone back from Kansas City to St. Louis to take hauler that worked then broke down about 200 miles from Portland.

“I laugh knowing that we’re on the other side of it,” Martins said Friday of all the issues his team had transporting cars and equipment across the country.

“We’ve started to make plans and corrections for it not happening again,” he said.

That hauler that was left in Kansas City? It was repaired and transported to Sonoma, arriving earlier this week.

“Our guys are troopers,” Martins said. “Both of our (truck) drivers were just awesome about the whole thing. … They went through hell week as far as driving somewhere, fly back and pick something up, drive again and now are going to have to do the same thing getting back.”

When the garage opened Friday at Sonoma, Alpha Prime Racing had all its cars.

“I don’t think we had any major issues here, so that was good,” Martins said.

The focus is back on the track. Karam was 24th on the speed chart in Friday’s practice, leading Alpha Prime Racing’s effort. Dylan Lupton was 32nd. Jeffrey Earnhardt was last among 41 cars.

After Saturday night’s race, the team heads back to North Carolina for a well-earned weekend off.

Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma


SONOMA, Calif. — Kyle Larson posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Xfinity Series practice at Sonoma Raceway.

This is the first time the series has raced at the 1.99-mile road course in Northern California. Teams got 50 minutes of practice Friday.

Larson led the way with a lap of 90.392 mph. He was more than a second faster than the rest of the field.

MORE: Xfinity practice results Sonoma

Sheldon Creed was second on the speed chart with a lap of 89.066 mph. He was followed by AJ Allmendinger (89.052 mph), Cole Custer (89.020) and Ty Gibbs (88.989).

Larson, Allmendinger and Gibbs are among seven Cup drivers are entered in the Xfinity race. Aric Almirola was seventh on the speed chart with a lap of 88.750 mph. Ross Chastain was ninth with a lap of 88.625 mph. Daniel Suarez was 16th with a lap of 88.300 mph. Ty Dillon was 33rd with a lap of 86.828 mph.

Anthony Alfredo will go to a backup car after a crash in practice. He was uninjured in the incident that damaged the right side of his car.

Qualifying is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET Saturday. The race is scheduled to begin at 8:20 p.m. ET Saturday.

Anthony Alfredo’s car after a crash in Xfinity practice Friday at Sonoma Raceway. He was uninjured. (Photo: Dustin Long)