Saturday, June 25, 2011

Road Courses and Their Place in NASCAR

There is an ongoing debate within the community of NASCAR fans, analysts and officials concerning road courses and their place in each of NASCAR's top series. There are some who believe Watkins Glen and Infineon provided enough, if not too much, road racing each season, while on the other side of the coin there are those who believe road courses should be more prominent on the schedule, including the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

As a member of the latter group, I'm still disappointed to still see just two lone road course races on the Sprint Cup circuit in California's wine country and the Finger Lakes in New York. However, recent additions to NASCAR's second-tier series, the Nationwide Series, has brought me great joy, along with some great racing. While we never see Mustangs or Challengers at Infineon, the Nationwide Series does stop at the Glen, along with two more road courses not featured in NASCAR's premier series: Road America and Montreal. Montreal has been on the schedule since 2007, and has provided many memorable moments in a short amount of time, including an exciting photo finish between Max Papis and Boris Said last year.

Road America, meanwhile, made its debut last year, with mayhem and intense racing around the 14 turn course. This year, the action was even more intense, and as the laps wound down more and more drivers emerged as contenders and had the opportunity to win, only to see it slip from their hands.

Entering the race, Jacques Villeneuve was among the favorites to contend for the victory in the second race at the Wisconsin track. He didn't disappoint, as in the first half of the race he led several laps and battled hard with Michael McDowell to try to keep it, including on the lap 25 restart, when he pulled out of line before ultimately passing McDowell later in the lap. However, due to his action on the restart, Villeneuve was forced to serve a drive-through penalty for violating NASCAR's restart procedure, costing him valuable track position. He spent the final 50 percent of the race rallying aggressively, most notably on the first green-white checkered attempt when he went to the grass attempting to overtake Brian Scott, resulting in contact that sent Scott spinning and Max Papis into the concrete barrier. The incident also cost Villeneuve several more positions, costing Jacques a chance at the victory, although he was able to salvage a 3rd place finish.

However, McDowell was also a favorite entering the race. McDowell was driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, a team that has simply dominated the Nationwide Series for several years, and for the driver with road racing roots it was a rare opportunity to contend for a victory in NASCAR. The driver who is forced to start-and-park in most of the Sprint Cup efforts due to lack of sponsorship, earned the pole and took no prisoners in his quest for his first career win, leading the most laps in the race. His aggressive moves appeared to pay off as he was driving into the sunset with 4 laps to go of the 50 that were scheduled. However, Doug Harrington's spin changed the outcome of the race dramatically, and ultimately led to three green-white-checkered attempts. On the second attempt, McDowell was passed by Justin Allgaier for the lead, and in the following corner he went off the course and spun, his opportunity to win fading away along with the dust from his off-road excursion into the air. McDowell with rally furiously from the back of the pack and, despite another incident in the final green-white-checkered attempt, finish 12th, impressive considering the circumstances but nonetheless disappointing for the driver that 16 miles from victory.

Justin Allgaier was far from being a favorite to win the race on Saturday. While he is among the top drivers in the Nationwide Series, with two wins in his short career along with a spot in contention for the championship, he isn't considered to be among the top road course drivers on the tour. However, the young driver took the white flag while in the lead, and when the caution came out for Aric Almirola getting stuck in the gravel trap it appeared that Allgaier had earned his second victory of the season. Just a matter of seconds after the caution had flown, however, Allgaier's car ran out of fuel, and he went from tasting the spoils of victory to finishing in 19th.

When the caution came out on the final lap, Allgaier's Turner Motorsports teammate Reed Sorenson was running second, with Ron Fellows 3rd. Fellows was among the favorites to win, with a rich history of road racing success in his career, and when he passed not only the idle Allgaier but also Sorenson under caution, it appeared that he may add to that success, and NASCAR for a time said that Sorenson had failed to maintain pace speed when the caution came out, and declared Fellows was the race leader. After reviewing replays that showed Fellows running at nearly full speed around the circuit after the caution came out, violating caution procedures. Ultimately, minutes after the checkered flag waived, NASCAR overturned its original ruling, and gave the victory to Sorenson, leaving Fellows in second.

While Allgaier was among the last people expected to head to victory lane at the conclusion of Saturday's race, his teammate Sorenson was looked upon as even less likely to notch a win. In each road course race in the Nationwide Series last year, Sorenson was taken out of the car in place of Villeneuve due to his inexperience on road courses. However, in the midst of a championship battle this season, Sorenson was able to maintain his ride. After a dramatic series of events in the final laps of the race, Sorenson not only found himself in victory lane for the first time since 2007, but also vaulted from third to the top of the Nationwide Series championship standings.

All of these storylines played out in a race that this NASCAR fan won't soon forget, and these don't even take into the other storylines that I overlooked, including Max Papis' attempt to earn a victory after coming just short in the most recent road course race in Montreal, or the constantly changing championship picture with ever turn, and the trials and tribulations of the Nationwide Series regulars, all in one action-packed race.

This is not atypical of road course racing, it seems more often than not there is lots of action and drama in the left and right hand turns of road course races. It is for this reason that I, along with many others, contend that road courses at the very least deserve a spot in the Chase, if not a couple more dates on the overall schedule. Until the day comes in which that is the case, if that day ever comes, I will treasure every exciting lap we get to witness on the road courses in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series. The best part is, there's 110 more laps of racing coming up today.

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