Drivers take stock of NASCAR’s Year of the Road Course

Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

Drivers take stock of NASCAR’s Year of the Road Course

NASCAR

Drivers take stock of NASCAR’s Year of the Road Course

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The year of NASCAR road course racing is almost complete. With last Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, six of the seven road course races on this year’s schedule are now in the books, and some drivers have had their fill.

It’s not as if turning left and right is a new concept. For the longest time, the Cup Series garage only had to worry about Sonoma and Watkins Glen, then in 2018, a third, unique one was added with the Charlotte Roval. Going from three to seven road courses and having six of them in the regular season was a pre-season headline.

Now that the series has made it through the bulk of them, the question is whether it’s been a nice change of pace or brought on road course fatigue. And the answer, as you might expect, fell across a wide range of views.

Erik Jones: “Being honest, growing up, I had no interest in being a road course racer, I wanted to race ovals, and obviously that’s changing in NASCAR quickly. We’re doing a lot of it. I enjoy it. It’s something I’ve worked at to get better at and feel like I have, but it’s definitely a lot. Seven road course races is a lot. It’s hard on the drivers physically, and it’s hard on the teams just having that many cars ready to go, but I enjoy it.”

Martin Truex Jr.: “It’s been fun. We’ve enjoyed them a lot. We’ve been really competitive in all of them but lacking that win, though. I really thought coming into this year all of the road courses would be good to us, and I feel like they have from a points standpoint for sure, but just haven’t quite been able to get that win.”

William Byron: “I don’t feel like we need more of them; I think seven is plenty. I think the Next Gen car is going to make the road courses better as a driver. It might be a little more spread because they’re going to be easier to drive. I feel like the cars right now are really hard to drive — there is a lot of brake lock-up, the cars don’t stop well, they don’t turn well, so you see a lot of accidents. Next year you might see less of that because the car is going to be easier to brake and shift, and you won’t have as many mechanical issues.”

Drivers hope the coming Next Gen Cup car will be better suited for road racing than the current version. Matthew Thacker/Motorsport Images

Chris Buescher: “It’s a little bit too much, and I’m a road course fan. I enjoy doing it four or five times a year, but this is enough — and it may be a little bit on the high side for my liking. I feel like the majority of drivers would say the same thing. Then we got a handful of people that are really good on the road course and would probably like to run more. I’m a short track racer by trade; that’s what I grew up doing and want to do more. (But) we’re coming back around and getting a pretty good revamp here, and road courses are a little bit more along that style. But I would definitely prefer more short tracks and no more road courses. I can handle this amount — it’s on the top end, but I don’t want to keep adding more.”

Kyle Larson: “We’ve been good on them, so I like it. But I think we would have been good on ovals as well. I was honestly a little bit nervous about it before the season started just because I hadn’t won any road course races yet, and never really challenged for a win at one. But Hendrick Motorsports has really good equipment, and it’s made the road courses more enjoyable than I thought I would have on them. It’s been fun.”

Matt DiBenedetto: “I love them; I’d run road courses every week and for a career, honestly. I enjoy it. I would enjoy it more if we were in a Hendrick or Gibbs car. It’s cool, though, and I’m proud of our team because we have improved to where I think we are next best, aside from those guys. We’ve kind of taken a leap ahead of the rest of the group where we’ve had no problem running up in the top 10, which is great, just the other guys have more speed in the tank.”

Kurt Busch: “Next year’s car is really going to adapt to the road courses much better than these (cars) are. Just got to get ready for it. Yeah, it’s like, braking markers? I’ve got to go find this one. I got to remember it’s not that one. So, a lot of road course action, but it’s motorsport — you’ve got to jump in and go with both feet.”

Road races have provided a new opening for first-time winners like Christopher Bell at Daytona. Rusty Jarrett/Motorsport Images

Four drivers have won the six road course races. Christopher Bell scored his first career win at Daytona while Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson have two wins each. Elliott won at COTA and Road America, with Larson taking wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. AJ Allmendinger was the most recent winner at Indianapolis.

Last year, Cup Series drivers completed 174 laps on road courses. However, it was a unique scenario with only two road course races (Daytona and Charlotte) because of the coronavirus pandemic. Daytona took the spot of Sonoma, and there was no visit to Watkins Glen.

The 2019 season would have been the last normal year with Sonoma, Watkins Glen, and the Roval. In that season, drivers completed 289 laps on road courses, and those races were spread out through the season with Sonoma in June, Watkins Glen in August, and the Roval in September.

Now, look at 2020, where drivers have run 463 road course laps with another race still to go. The races are also closer together as the season goes on: Daytona (Feb.), COTA (May), Sonoma (June), Road America (July), Watkins Glen (August), Indianapolis (August). Sonoma and Road America were two weeks apart. Watkins Glen and Indy were back to back.

Given all of this, how are drivers feeling physically doing more road course racing?

Denny Hamlin: “You just get more reps doing it; everyone gets a little bit better with all the road courses we have, especially back to back. You just get more reps, so as you see the field tighter together.”

Truex: “Not really anything that sticks out. I’ve always felt pretty comfortable on road courses, not really having any issues with being sore afterward or feeling things that I wouldn’t on an oval.”

Byron: “It’s definitely not as hard as it used to be. I think you used to come to the road courses and be kind of worn out, and a lot of guys would be falling out of the seats toward the end of the race. I don’t think that’s a thing as much now; we’re pretty used to it. Every time we come back from a break from a road course and go to one, my right arm always is sore on Monday from shifting so much. None of that this weekend; we’re kind of used to it.”

DiBenedetto: “I said after Watkins Glen, I’m sore for days after. My sides are sore from being tensed up, and the body takes more of a beating because these stock cars on road courses — jumping the curbs at Watkins Glen is fun, I love it — it’s just on your body it’s a lot more taxing because jumping the curbs all day long is like having a collision. It’s so physical — you’re wheeling the heck out of it. So, it’s fun but definitely more taxing on your body.”

The seventh and final road course race is on October 10 at Charlotte. It is also the cutoff race in the second round of the playoffs.

 

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