Back when we were running for championships, the schedule and where the road courses fell into that schedule was somewhat different. Back then, we knew we were going to end our season on a road course, that being the one in Riverside, Calif. So when a place like Watkins Glen was added to the schedule, it gave us a chance to see where our strengths and weaknesses were before we ever got to Riverside.
So to us back then, road courses were really important because they did two things: gave us a chance to see where our road-course program was from the team aspect, as well as keeping our driver tuned up knowing it would all end at Riverside.
Road course racing has evolved to critical importance for your championship hopes in today’s NASCAR. Back in the day, some drivers and teams viewed a road-course race almost like a “throw-away” race. They didn’t like road courses, their driver didn’t like road courses and so they would just go do what they could and get out of there.
Back then, some teams would go out and hire “road-course ringers,” as we called them, for one- or two-race deals. They would pull their driver out and put a road-course specialist into their car in hopes of grabbing a win or at least a high-placing finish.
We have a much different points and championship format today than we did back then. The advent of the two Wild Card spots has, in my book, even heightened the importance of road courses. Take a look, for example, at drivers like Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. They are experts on the road course. For either or both of them to get a win at Sonoma and Watkins Glen could mean the difference if them making or not making the 2013 Chase by grabbing a Wild Card spot.
Our sport has also evolved when it comes to road racing, where you very rarely see “road-course ringers” anymore. Sure, there are a few of the low-tiered teams that go out and get a hired gun road-course specialist, but overall in our sport, all the main players have ratcheted up their road-course game.
For some teams that don’t have a win yet but have a driver who’s really good on the road courses, well, these are golden opportunities that you can’t let pass by. You have to take advantage of them when they are in front of you. It literally could make or break your hopes and dreams of being in this year’s Chase.
If I am the crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya or Marcos Ambrose, I am going to spend every waking moment trying to build the best road race car possible for them. It’s going to have the best transmission and best set of brakes available. I’ll even use one of my tests to go to a road course just to shake things down and make sure I do have an advantage over the Tony Stewarts, Jeff Gordons and the Kasey Kahnes of our sport who are very good road racers in their own right.
Again, Sonoma this weekend and Watkins Glen on down the road may be our driver and our team’s only shot at making the Chase. We have to take extreme full advantage of that. If opportunity is knocking, we have to be ready to answer the door.