Motorsport News

The Long Hard Road (Course) to the Top

Jeff Burton at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

The emergence of highly competitive road racing specialists like Shane van Gisbergen may come as a surprise to some NASCAR fans, but it really shouldn’t.

For accomplished road warriors, the type of car often matters less than the technique. Entry angles, cornering, shift points and braking zones can certainly translate from one type of car to another.

Road course racing is a highly specialized discipline that requires a completely different skillset than circle-track competition. In today’s NASCAR Cup Series, very few drivers, if any, make it to that level without participating in at least a handful of races on road courses and even street circuits. But that wasn’t always the case.

Imagine, if you will, learning how to race in a car on a paved oval. Everything you know about setups, footwork, car control and more is based on being fast while turning left. You work your way up through local divisions, the ARCA Menards Series, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and finally earn a spot on the Cup grid.

Congratulations! Oh, now you will need to know how to turn right and left in a couple races each season despite potentially having never done it in your career.

That’s how it was for a long time. Most feeder series for stock car racing didn’t compete on road courses. NASCAR owners were often put in the undesirable position of replacing their regular driver for a single race simply because the regular wheelman didn’t have the chops to contend on the road courses.

Even some of NASCAR Cup racing’s greatest weren’t really adept at the whole left-right turning thing. To see a particularly remarkable example of this, one needs to look no further than the 1999 Cup Series champion, Dale Jarrett.

Jarrett started his first road course event in 1987, a Cup race at Riverside International Raceway that kicked off a stretch of futility that saw him finish better than 11th just twice in his first 20 outings on tracks that included right-hand turns. By the time he had collected his second top five on a road course, Jarrett already had two Daytona 500 trophies and a Brickyard 400 triumph among his 10 career wins at that point.

The NASCAR Hall of Famer never won a road course race in the Cup Series. In fact, he never finished better than fourth in one. I’m not picking on DJ here, but rather illuminating just how some drivers got short-changed by being exposed to road racing so late in the development of their skills.


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