Roger Diez: The days of the ‘road course ringers’ are behind us
Those of you who have been following NASCAR for a while will remember the days of the “road course ringers.” They were drivers like Ron Fellows and Boris Said who were hired by teams specifically for road course races because of their expertise at turning right as well as left. As Chase Elliott demonstrated at Daytona last Sunday, those days are gone forever. Elliott has proven himself a true road course ace, winning Cup races at Watkins Glen in 2018 and 2019, at the Charlotte Roval last season, and on the Daytona road course last Sunday. Chase led the most laps, building a 10-second lead before a late caution erased it. He then dueled with Denny Hamlin on the final restart to take his second win of the season with three perfect laps. And congrats to young Kaz Grala, sitting in for Austin Dillon who was diagnosed with COVID-19. Grala scored a top-10 finish in seventh.
There are just three races to go before the playoffs, and this weekend’s doubleheader at Dover counts for two of them. The final regular season race will be the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on the Daytona oval next Saturday. With only 10 drivers locked in with wins, at least three drivers will qualify for the 16 playoff berths on points. Jimmie Johnson is 25 points below the cut line and in danger of not making the playoffs in his final season in NASCAR. And defending champion Kyle Busch, after a mechanical failure at Daytona on Sunday, is still winless on the season but 118 points above the cut line. Dover is probably Johnson’s best shot at a win this season, as he is by far the winningest active driver with 11 victories at the Monster Mile. Kyle Busch also has a shot with three Dover wins. Both drivers last won there in 2017. Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman have also won three times at Dover, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick twice each, with Elliott, Kurt Busch, and Brad Keselowski each one-time winners.
Last weekend’s Indy 500 qualifying lacked much of the drama of years gone by. With only 33 cars entered there was no bumping, and all entries will start the race Sunday. The biggest drama was the Fast 9 run for the pole on Sunday in a stiff breeze, with Marco Andretti backing up his Saturday performance to take the pole. The last time an Andretti sat on pole at Indy was in 1987 when grandfather Mario took the position in the same year Marco was born. Mario’s only win was in 1969, but since then the “Andretti curse” kept him out of victory lane. On a side note, an old announcer joke is that the most famous four words hear on the PA at Indy and not, “It’s a new track record” but “And Mario is slowing!” Michael (Mario’s son, Marco’s father) never won either the pole or the race as a driver in his otherwise successful career but has had five wins as a team owner.
Mercedes was back on top in Spain last Sunday, with Lewis Hamilton’s masterful tire management taking him to the win. But Red Bull’s Max Verstappen managed to split the Mercedes cars, finishing second ahead of Valtteri Bottas. That moved Max to second in the driver point standings with 95 to Bottas’ 89 but well behind Hamilton’s 132. Mercedes leads the constructors’ standings 221 to Red Bull’s 135 with Racing Point in third with 63. Hamilton’s win in Spain was his 88th, only three behind the record 91 wins set by Michael Schumacher. Hamilton is on pace to become the winningest driver in F1 before the season is over.