NASCAR America: Better equipment, skilled drivers changed road racing

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The Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway is the first of three road course races on the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar and the preparation involved in setting up these cars is much greater today than it has been in the past, according to NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett.

“I think the same emphasis is put in those two road course races and the cars that will be in those races,” Earnhardt said. “And now the Roval that will be at Charlotte – being a very important race in the playoffs – these road course racers are even more important.”

Man and machine need to be equal to the challenge.

“Not only is the emphasis more on the drivers to prepare and learn how to become road course racers, but there is a lot more emphasis on the cars too,” Earnhardt said. “All the cars are so much more similar and there is a lot more dedication to preparing the cars for these particular races. It’s almost like there is as much effort into putting a good road course car on the track as there is speedway cars – like Daytona and Talladega cars.”

Even the best driver cannot compete in equipment that is not up to the challenge and it took some outside expertise to raise NASCAR to the level of other marquee road racing series mechanically. Car owners like Jack Roush and road ringers like Boris Said contributed to the evolution of the racing discipline.

“The cars are so much better now than when we started,” Dale Jarrett said. “Whenever I got started in the Cup series fulltime in ’87, there were a couple of good road racers – and I think of Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace … but Jack Roush brought something totally new into the sport a little later in the 80s and early 90s. … Their equipment was a little bit better because they understood road racing a little more. Now everybody has all that.”

Jarrett recalled what he believes might be one of the biggest upsets of his career. He won the pole for the 2001 Global Crossing at the Glen because he received a tip from Said, who told him he was not getting deep enough into the corners because his brakes were not good enough.

“You talk about road course ringers: Boris Said and Ron Fellows and some other guys coming in,” Jarrett said. “One of the things that helped them, they were better because they did it all the time, but they also would tell the teams they were going to drive for, ‘hey, there’s a lot better braking and other things out there that you can do.’ They came in and they had better equipment, which made them look even that much better than what we were.”

For more, watch the video above.

Sonoma Raceway and the anti-road course ringers

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The Sprint Cup Series only visits two road courses over the course of its 36-race season – Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

There are still drivers who have either excelled at the venues in their careers or who specialize enough on road courses to be called in for the events. Over the years this has included Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Boris Said, Scott Pruett and Ron Fellows.

Then there are the drivers who have no luck when it comes to Watkins Glen or Sonoma, which hosts the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday.

One of those is Matt Kenseth, who can claim Sonoma as his worst track with an average finish of 22.1 and it being the only track on the schedule he’s never led a lap.

Kenseth isn’t the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver who would likely prefer their Sonoma stats struck from the record. When looking at average finishes, Sonoma is also the worst track for Denny Hamlin. Through nine starts at the 12-turn track, Hamlin’s average finish is 23.2.

For Kyle Busch, even with his one win there, Sonoma represents his fourth worst track with an average finish of 20.9. The same goes for Brad Keselowski at 20.0.

Sonoma is also David Ragan’s worst venue with an average finish of 29.5.

Road courses have always been the least favorite form of racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even with his career-best finish of third last year at Sonoma, Earnhardt’s average result is 20.3, his thirst worst on the circuit. The two lowest are at Homestead and Watkins Glen.

For points leader Kevin Harvick, his average finish of 15.9 is his fifth worst.