Road course 'ringers' in Cup: A thing of the past?

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The use of 'ringers' in NASCAR's premier division is not a very common practice anymore.

Back in the day, NASCAR teams were notorious for grabbing road course aces from open-wheel and sports car disciplines when it was time to head to a road course event.

In the 70's and 80's, it was names such as Mark Donohue, Dan Gurney, and Tommy Kendall that would show up once or twice a year and put in a solid finish, even win at times.

Ron Fellows, Chevrolet
Ron Fellows, Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Boris Said, Patrick Carpentier, Scott Pruett, P. J. Jones, Max Papis, Mattias Ekström, Alex Tagliani, Jan Magnussen Ron Fellows, Jacque Villneuve, and Tomy Drissi are some notable 'ringers' from recent years. The use of these so-called 'ringers' has declined dramatically however.

So what is the reasoning behind the stark decline of the practice? One of the culprits has to be the 'Chase;' NASCAR's version of the playoffs. Under the current rules, a driver must attempt every race to remain eligible. The bigger reason is very simple actually...they can no longer beat the full-time NASCAR stars.

The full-time racers of today have become much more versatile than their predecessors and can match almost any 'ringer,' any day of the week. In fact, the last time a 'ringer' won a Cup race was over 40 years ago when Mark Donohue took home the hardware at Riverside for Roger Penske in 1973. Even in the Nationwide and Trucks where the 'ringers' still have a strong presence and there's less competition, it's a very rare occurrence to see them in victory lane.

The driver who seems to have everyone beat in terms of road course talent right now is two-time Australian V8 Supercar champion Marcos Ambrose. The fact that he races full-time doesn't make him a 'ringer' though. Marcos has been competing in NASCAR since 2006, winning six races between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series. All of those victories came at road courses.

Winner Marcos Ambrose celebrates
Winner Marcos Ambrose celebrates

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

In Cup, he takes the mid-pack Richard Petty Motorsports team to the front every time NASCAR goes road racing and it's certainly a product of his V8 Supercar experience. In that series, they race touring cars and compete on some incredibly challenging circuits that force every road racing ace to push their talents to the absolute limit. Besides cars that share more resemblance to NASCAR's than any sports car or open-wheel machine, the racing itself is similar too. There is a lot of contact and close battling throughout the field, very similar to NASCAR competition.

Going into this weekend's race at Sonoma, only three back-marker teams are employing the services of 'ringers.' Alex Kennedy will be driving the No. 33 for Joe Falk, Tomy Drissi will pilot the No. 66 in the place of Joe Nemchek, and Boris Said is taking the wheel of the No. 32 machine for Frank Stoddard. Falk's team hasn't scored a top ten finish since 1998, Nemechek has yet to secure a top 30 finish in 2014, and Stoddard's cars have never placed higher than 15th in a Cup race.

NASCAR is far removed from the days of the southern cowboys who smoked cigarettes and just jumped into their cars with little preparation. That being said, guys like Cale Yarborough were pretty awesome. Today, these drivers are on vigorous training/dieting plans, go through months of intense mental and physical preparation for races, and have evolved into lean, mean, racing machines.

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Series NASCAR-CUP
Article type Commentary
Tags alex kennedy, boris said, marcos ambrose, nascar, nick degroot, ringers, road course, sonoma