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Is the 'ringer factor' still relevant to NASCAR?

How do you flesh out the entry list for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race?

Hold it on a road course.

On the circuits where right turns won't necessarily get you in trouble, you'll routinely see drivers who rarely appear on the staple of stock car racing - the ovals.

Sunday's race at Watkins Glen won't be an exception, with P.J. Jones, Ron Fellows and Brian Simo entered in the race. Sports car ace Andy Lally will make his Cup debut in a second car fielded by Kevin Buckler. For the second time this season, Patrick Carpentier will take the wheel from Michael Waltrip for a road-course event.

Not that long ago, the so-called road-course 'ringers' were capable of contending for victories in Cup races. Fellows has come closest, having finished second at Watkins Glen in 1999 and 2004. If the ringers were a factor, so were the Cup drivers with polished road-racing skills — but you didn't need two hands to count them.

Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon invariably appeared at the top of the list of favorites to win on a road course.

Recently, however, road-course events have been much more competitive. It still helps to have a road-racing background, as Marcos Ambrose proved by driving from the rear to consecutive third-place finishes in the most recent races at Watkins Glen and Infineon Raceway. But road-course skills are no longer a guarantee of relative success, as Fellows and Boris Said have found in recent races.

Yes, testing and practice have improved skill levels throughout the field, and yes, drivers from oval backgrounds are far less hesitant to mix it up with the ringers than they used to be. If there's one factor, however, that has taken an advantage away from the ringers and road-course savvy Cup drivers, it's NASCAR's new racecar.

That, at least, is the way Jeff Gordon sees it.

“Yeah, I think this car has closed up the gap quite a bit,” Gordon said. “It's just hard to have much of an edge over the competition anywhere we go, and it shows up as well on the road courses. Everything NASCAR has done has really put us into a box as far as our transmissions and obviously with the car.”

Perhaps coincidentally, Gordon hasn't won on a road course since 2006. The new car has been in use on road courses ever since. Then again, Gordon was leading at the Glen two years ago when he spun in turn one with two laps left, in essence handing the victory to Stewart.

“For me, if I get out in front, don't wheel-hop getting into turn one and spin out with two or three laps to go — that's what I'm going to be working on,” Gordon said facetiously.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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