One of the first things that immediately jumped off the page at me when I took my first look at the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule was the fact that there are now six points-paying road course races on the circuit. Joining mainstays Watkins Glen, Sonoma, and the Charlotte Roval will be Road America, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, and the Circuit of the Americas in the upcoming season. There will be more right turns than ever before on the traditionally oval dominant tour.
The 2021 Busch Clash will also be run on the road course layout at the Daytona International Speedway.
Drivers and teams who perform well on road courses will have more chances than ever to take advantage of those skills next season. That opens up the possibility that some teams who might not necessarily be considered among the favorites to make the NASCAR Playoffs could position themselves very well going forward. So-called second tier teams might very well have been provided an avenue to pull off a surprise in the regular season to make the playoffs and/or score a win that will advance them into another round once in the championship mix.
For example, Michael McDowell is a solid road course racer. Given multiple opportunities, he and his Front Row Motorsports team could potentially grab a win on a road course such as Road America to earn a spot in the playoffs. While such a scenario may not be considered a probability, it is not out of the question, particularly if a timely caution or well managed pit strategy comes into play.
If it turns out that driver Clint Bowyer isn’t retained by Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2021 season, one of the teams not normally considered a front runner could bring the veteran driver who has found road course success during his career in to drive. That team could then place extra emphasis on its road course program in the hope of achieving a victory at the Circuit of the Americas, Sonoma Raceway or one of the other road circuits.
Remember the road course ringers that used to be brought in just for the two or three events on those types of tracks a few years ago?
Several years ago the idea of the road course ringer was expanded as drivers such as Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose, and Wally Dallenbach, Jr. were offered opportunities as full-time drivers largely due to their earlier accomplishments on road courses.
Why wouldn’t a second tier team find a young driver from the ranks of IMSA or another road racing series who wants a shot at the big time and put them in a Cup Series ride? Sure, there would be a steep learning curve on oval tracks but there could be an advantage gained on road circuits. Teams such as Front Row Motorsports, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and others aren’t going to beat the power teams by simply doing the same things they are.
Obviously, all of this is dependent on the current system used for deciding a NASCAR Cup Series champion remaining in place for a while. Hiring a road course specialist at a time when road courses now make up a significant portion of the schedule could be the something different that gives those teams a chance to upset the balance.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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