Commentary

Elite NASCAR drivers should be able to handle a simple road course ... right?

Want to stir up a hornet's nest? Include a road course race smack-dab in the middle of the Chase. C'mon, NASCAR, Ryan McGee dares you.

Updated: August 7, 2008, 4:12 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Kevin HarvickAP Photo/Tom RyderSprint Cup cars making right-hand turns? Drivers do both lefties and righties at Watkins Glen.

We, the people who love NASCAR, don't agree on much.

Your buddy's favorite driver is the one you hate most.

His favorite race is the one that puts you to sleep.

He thinks so-and-so is the best TV commentator and you think the dude is more irritating than Carl Lewis singing the national anthem.

But there is one topic that most NASCAR fans, not to mention the racers themselves, agree on much more often than not.

We hate road course racing.

"I wouldn't say that I hate it," says Sterling Marlin, who has earned exactly one top-5 road course finish in 43 tries. "It's a challenge for sure. And it's certainly not the kind of racing that most of us came up with. OK, you know what? I do hate it a little bit."

Why? Because it's different. Very different. Like visiting another planet different.

But if we really want to keep declaring our drivers "the best in the world," then we not only need road course racing in NASCAR, we need more road course racing in NASCAR.

Retrain your brain
This weekend at Watkins Glen, teams won't use one spotter, but three or four. Pit crews will have to remember that the fuel nozzle is on the right side of the car instead of the left. And one week after taking a whopping 600 left-hand turns at Pocono, drivers will take 270 lefties at The Glen … mixed in with 540 righties. Oh, and did we mention they'll be running counterclockwise?

"You can either do it or you can't," admits Greg Biffle, who sits eighth in points coming to a track where he's finished 30th or worse in four of his five visits. "We finally got a top-10 there last year. It was 10th, but I'll take it. Some guys go there knowing they've got a shot to win. Others just want to survive and get the hell out of there."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we need road racing in NASCAR. Not so long ago in the pre-Chase era, the season's two road course events were mere party novelties. Only a few drivers were real contenders (first there were Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd … then Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon) and the rest of the field was willing to concede the race, take whatever points it was handed, and then moved on to the next oval.

Not anymore. Every point matters more than it did even just six seasons ago, and every team has worked to squeeze those points out of every lap -- right-hand turns or not.

Those who don't bother to get better get left behind.

"My first Cup start was in 1995," remembers Ron Fellows, sports car racing veteran, longtime "hired gun" and last week's Nationwide Series winner in Montreal. "Back then, there were only a handful of guys that you really looked at and thought they could run any road racing series in the world. But now these guys are all serious about road racing. They've spent time in simulators, they've been to racing schools, and they've hired instructors to fine-tune their performance. And it shows."

Fellows knows of what he speaks. He's one of the most in-demand teachers.

Two is not enough
NASCAR's Sprint Cup schedule is easily the most diverse and demanding challenge in the motorsports world. Nowhere else will you find such a varied combination of tracks, from Bristol to Texas to Talladega to Pocono, and no two tracks are exactly alike -- even the so-called cookie-cutters have their own unique characteristics. Formula One, World Rally and other global series typically focus on a single type of circuit and stick with it all season long (although IndyCar's '09 schedule is shaping up to provide much more balance than in the past).

NASCAR's calendar is also the longest, most grueling schedule racing has to offer, dwarfing the race count of its rivals, which typically take a week off between events and never run more than three weekends in a row.

The result is that the eventual Cup champion must be multitalented, and he must be diverse. Restrictor plates, short tracks, intermediate, flat, high-banked … and, yes, road courses.

But are two -- The Glen and Sonoma -- enough to represent what most of the world considers "real racing"?

"We could definitely use another road course," says Robby Gordon, not surprising considering that two of his three career Cup wins have come on the road circuits. "I'm not talking about adding four or even two more. Just one more would work. Call it the tiebreaker to see who really is King of the Road."

(Road) Race to the Chase
The perfect place to stick that third road race would be squarely in the middle of the Chase, NASCAR's 10-week title bout. The 12 best drivers to survive NASCAR's super-diverse 26-race "regular season" should crown the champion only after he survives a true 10-race representation of that season.

The Chase already includes flat tracks, 1.5-mile quad-ovals, a short track and even a restrictor-plate race. The one track it's missing? You guessed it.

"If you are going to truly represent the season within the Chase, you almost have to have a road course race." As Jeff Burton says it, you can tell he regrets it almost as quickly as the phrase escapes his lips. After all, he's posted only three top-5 finishes in 29 combined tries at The Glen and Infineon.

But he's right.

The champ should be the best at every discipline NASCAR has to offer. Like it or hate it -- even if you really, really hate it -- road racing is one of those disciplines.

"By the way," Burton adds, "I don't want to take the blame for this idea if it ever happens. There are some guys in here that would never forgive me."

Memo to Burton: Stay away from Sterling Marlin.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

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