The quality of road course racing has improved immensely over the last 10 years in the Cup Series, and even the Nationwide road races have seen drivers like Jacques Villeneuve and Ron Fellows make regular appearances.
Since 2006, seven drivers have won road course races in the Sprint Cup Series, and in a teleconference on Tuesday, Boris Said said that NASCAR drivers were "the best racers in the world." And if that's true, who's the best of the best when it comes to making both left and right turns? (Sorry Boris, only Cup regulars are in the discussion.)
Marcos Ambrose: Ambrose isn't one of those seven drivers, but he could have been if it wasn't for his "Merkle's Boner" moment at Sonoma. He won the Nationwide race at Watkins Glen last year and came within a corner of winning the Nationwide race at Montreal. Ambrose will be one of the heavy favorites at Watkins Glen.
Kyle Busch: Shrub won both road course races in 2008, though he only has one top-five finish since then. However, the trouble that he got into at Sonoma this year wasn't his fault. Busch was on the (pipe) dream list of the now defunct USF1 team and will probably win a lot more road course races before his career is over with.
Jeff Gordon: Gordon was the undisputed king of road courses until Tony Stewart started to challenge him in the early 2000s. Gordon's last win on a road course was in 2006. That seems hard to believe, doesn't it?
Robby Gordon: Since sweeping the road course races in 2003, Gordon hasn't won a race in the Sprint Cup Series. Still, it's hard to leave him out of the discussion. He may be the prototypical "what-if?" driver, as he may have a couple more road course wins to his credit if he was driving for a top-flight team.
Jimmie Johnson: Yes, Johnson won his first road course race in June, but there's no reason to think that he couldn't make it a clean sweep of 2010 on Sunday. (Who can forget Johnson's crash in turn one at Watkins Glen? That impact might rival Elliott Sadler's.)
Kasey Kahne: Kahne's another driver who's improved greatly on road courses as evidenced by his victory in 2009 at Sonoma where he had to hold off Tony Stewart on numerous late-race restarts. He's probably not the best, but he's definitely in the top 10.
Juan Pablo Montoya: Montoya's win in the 2007 Nationwide Series race in Mexico City — his first NASCAR road-course race — probably set the bar a little too high, which is why he may seem like a bit of a road course disappointment, winning last at Sonoma in '07. But it'd be hard not to take Montoya in a heads-up road course shootout against anyone in NASCAR. (And who am I not to link to Montoya's tiff with Kevin Harvick?)
Tony Stewart: Stewart has won five road course races since 2004, the most of any driver on the circuit. Smoke has five career wins at Watkins Glen and an average finish of 5.3. That's just absurd.
Who do you think is the best? Is it someone who's not even on the list?
For my money, Stewart is the best road course racer in the Cup Series, just edging out Ambrose. If Ambrose hadn't choked at Sonoma or in that corner at Montreal, he may have a legitimate claim. But it's hard to make a valid case for a driver without a Sprint Cup win on his resumé.
- Tony Stewart