Do Road Courses (Like Superspeedways) Level the Playing Field?

Are road courses, like superspeedway races, a case in which a driver who has little chance at winning the championship can ‘luck’ into a playoff berth?

Every year around this time (this time being when we head to Watkins Glen), there is a lot of talk about how NASCAR drivers and fans have changed their attitudes toward road courses. In terms of pace, circle tracks are hockey and road courses are more like baseball. But they’ve become some of the more eagerly anticipated events on the schedule. This year, for the first time, there’s a even road course in the playoffs.

In terms of pace, circle tracks are hockey and road courses are more like baseball

One argument for including a road course in the playoffs is that a champion ought to be competitive at all types of tracks. But if you win one of the road courses during the season, you’re automatically in the playoffs to become that champion. We’ve discussed the randomness of plate tracks before. The 20th place driver who lucks out gets into the playoffs, but has a very small chance of advancing.

A Little History

The timelime widget below is from knightlab, an experimental project at Northwestern University that develops new ways to present information. Although their focus is journalism, the materials are all open-source, which means even a dilettante like me gets to try them out.

Why start with history? Because road courses are an integral part of NASCAR’s history. After all, the very first race at Daytona was part road course.

The first race in Watkins Glen (1948) was initiated by Cameron Argetsinger and ran on the main roads through town. This tradition continued annually until 1952, when a 7-year-old boy was killed and others injured when a car went off the track.

The first permanent course (designed by legendary racing engineer William F. Millikan and collaborators from Cornell University) was completed in 1956. Milliken was also a racer: he drove in the first Watkins Glen race in 1948. He rolled his car. He later went on to become and expert in vehicle stability and authored the essential textbook on the topic.)

The first professional race at Watkins Glen was a NASCAR race in 1957 (won by Buck Baker). NASCAR also raced in 1964 and 1965. From 1961 to 1980, Watkins Glen was home to the United States Grand Prix, which became the track’s main focus.

Watkins Glen lost the Grand Prix and, in 1981, declared bankruptcy. The track was purchased two years later by International Speedway Corporation and Corning Enterprises (yes, the CorningWare people).

In 1986, NASCAR ran its first race at the newly-titled Watkins Glen International and the series has visited every year since.

A Level Playing Field?

I listen with interest when people talk about ‘the level playing field’.  During discussions of the aerodynamic setup NASCAR tested during the All-Star race, a lot of people made comparisons to plate tracks, where “anyone has a chance to win”.

There’s a difference between ‘a level playing field’ and ‘random’. The level playing field means that everyone has the same limits placed on their equipment. It means that I don’t get to use carbon fiber brakes and you don’t because you can’t afford them.

One need only look at the last Daytona race, where 50% of the field crashed out and another 25% were running with damaged cars. Driver finishes that day had a lot more to do with luck than the car and the driver.

Most years, we have at least one driver who made it into the playoffs with a single win at a restrictor plate track. Those drivers rarely make it past the first round of the playoffs. 

What about road courses? Are they, like plate races, bringing non-competitive drivers into the playoffs? 

The Lasting Myth of the Road-Course Ringer

Road course ringers are drivers who aren’t full-time with the series, but who stepped into a car hoping to exploit their experience turning right as well as left. Back in the day, it wasn’t unheard of for an owner to replace a series regular with a road course ringer.

Who Wins Road Course Races?

I was surprised when I looked up Boris Said and realized that, out of 54 Cup starts, he’d never won a race.  He won one XFINITY race out of 28 starts (2010, Montreal). This is not to knock Boris Said: He’s won a great many races in other series.

I had it in my mind that it was only recently that series regulars have won road course races. Instituting The Chase certainly discouraged road course ringers, but the last road course ringer to win a Cup series road-course race was Mark Donohue. (Riverside, 1973, in an AMC Matador)

There have been 32 Cup-level races at Watkins Glen since 1986. Those 32 races have been won by 19 different drivers.

A Tree map of which drivers have won races at Watkins Glen

Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon are Masters of The Glen, with 5 and 4 wins respectively. But every driver who’s won at Watkins Glen since we started racing there has been a series regular.

Who Holds the Records at Watkins Glen?

Looking at a few of the milestones…

A few records at Watkins Glen during the time NASCAR has made annual visits

All series regulars. One series regular holds a disproportionate number of records.

Do Some Drivers Have an Advantage?

All series regulars are not equal. Some drivers (Juan Pablo Montoya; Marcus Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger come to mind) bring experience from other racing series that don’t emphasize ovals as much as NASCAR does.

We’ve seen winners at plate tracks who ended the regular season 20th in points before points were re-aligned. Does that happen at road courses? I plotted where the winner of the Watkins Glen race ended up in the season rankings. (The vertical scale is reversed because smaller numbers are better.)

A plot of where the Watkins Glen winner eventually finished the season.

You can see that the finishes are all over the map, but that no driver finished lower than 19th in the final season rankings. And a number of drivers finished very well.

Let’s look at this data as a histogram: the number of drivers who finished in each final position as a function of that position.

A histogram shows the number of drivers who finished the season in a particular spot. For example, 7 Watkins Glen winners went on to become season champions 

Here’s what we can see from looking at the data this way

  • Seven times, the winner at Watkins Glen went on to win the championship.
  • 50% of the WG winners eventually finished in the top 6 for the year
  • 75% of the WG winners eventually finished in the top 10 for the year

So what about the lower 25%? 

The same as the graph above, but this time, with the names of the drivers who finished further back in the field at the end of the season

  • Geoffrey Bodine in 1996 (16th)
  • Robby Gordon in 2003 (14th)
  • Juan Pablo Montoya in 2010 (17th)
  • Marcus Ambrose in 2011 and 2012 (19th and 18th)
  • A.J. Allmendinger in 2014 (13th)

Conclusions About Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen does offer drivers who aren’t necessarily competitive at other tracks a higher probability of winning — but it’s not random, the way it is at plate tracks.  Watkins Glen rewards drivers who are good at road racing, but it turns out that many of the series’ best drivers are also good at road racing. 

What About Sonoma?

Just because two tracks are both road courses doesn’t mean they behave the same, so I did a similar analysis for Sonoma

And the histogram

Note: The histogram excludes Tony Stewart’s 15th place finish in the 2016 season, as he only completed 28 of the 36 races.
  • The winner of the Sonoma race went on to win the championship four times (as compared to seven for Watkins Glen)

But, just like Watkins Glen:

  • 50% of the drivers went on to finish in the top 6
  • 75% of the drivers went on to finish in the top 10

So the conclusion would seem to hold for both of the road tracks on the schedule.

But What About the Roval?

I wouldn’t suggest that this analysis should hold for the upcoming Charlotte Roval race because that track is a hybrid and not really a straight road course. Speeds are going to be much higher there and I suspect the track will favor overall years of experience and driver adaptability over road-course experience. 

1 Comment

  1. High profile teams never replace their regular driver on the Cup level (for obvious reasons, like sponsors, contracts, driver points etc.). Ergo any ringer who tries to exploit their road course experience could only find a low budget team, therefore any chance of winning a race is non-existent. At the lower tiers where many drivers simply lack the skills or experience even when otherwise they have the talent, these older ringers occasionally can find the way to Victory Lane. So, skills matter most and then the car (which must be competitive at least), to prove my point: Ambrose and Montoya (they were champions in other typres of racing, but in NASCAR they were ringers only). On ovals they were pretty average, but on road courses they could shine in sub par cars too.

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