Through the Field: Road Course Twists & Turns
The name of this column, “Through the Field,” has two separate meanings. On the racing side, it refers to the drivers racing and moving through the field of cars to get to the front, or the race broadcast discussing many cars in a segment that goes “through the field.” It also refers to the journey we walk every day. Moving through the metaphorical field that is life itself. Doing our best to end up in our own personal Victory Lane, whatever that means to us.
That analogy becomes even better when you think of racing on a road course. Road courses feature both left and right turns, racing on a course that is more similar to driving down a road in your neighborhood if no other cars were parked or coming in the other direction and you were driving more than 100 Miles Per Hour (MPH).
This racing is quite unlike a typical circle or oval track. Despite plenty of differences between them, they all have the same general shape and premise.
With road courses, everyone is completely different. No two are the same. While we’ve referred to some oval tracks as “cookie cutters” because of their similarity to each other, there are no cookie-cutter road courses.
Now that the NASCAR Cup Series goes to seven of them a season. That makes for seven unique and wild races featuring twists, turns, trials and tribulations, unlike any other event.
The Race of Life
Most of the time, the drive-through of our lives is much more like a road course than an oval. It’s almost never that smooth drive around and around; Instead you get a slow and rough turn, a long and fast straightaway, a “bus stop” chicane right, then left, then a right turn you weren’t expecting and then maybe you get spun out into the next turn. Life & road course racing are wild things, as I’m sure you know.
The summer swing has been one of those wild road courses for me for sure. It’s had its good turns for sure. Things like getting married, having job stability for another six months and experiencing a concert for the first time in over 500 days. But rough corners have been out there. We’ve had to cancel some trips because of finances. I didn’t get as much job security as I wanted. I also had a vehicle break down for the fourth time and finally render itself useless. In theory, that one ended that particular “race” for me.
But, all in all, the drive continues.
NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs
As does the race for the playoffs in the NASCAR Cup Series. Another win last week at Watkins Glen for Kyle Larson, who is now tied for the lead in the points standings, meant the battle at the bubble didn’t push another non-winner out in favor of a first-time-this-year winner. But this weekend’s event at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course, the second-to-last road course of the year and the first time the Cup Series has raced on this course, could easily shake things up once again.
I don’t have to tell you that your smart pickups are Larson and Chase Elliott, along with perhaps Martin Truex Jr. Those three will be the favorites and one of them almost certainly will win the race. If they don’t, I’m going to stick to the theme of this season’s crazy amount of winners and rate five (or five-ish) of the most likely drivers who may pick up their first win of 2021 at Indy.
Drivers to Watch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course
Austin Cindric & AJ Allmendinger: I know, I cheated a bit with this first one going with two drivers. But as I’ve said before in this column, these two have been the most competitive part-time road course ringers in quite some time. I don’t need to reiterate how good these drivers are on road courses. But what I can tell you is that these two were in the mix for the win at last year’s inaugural Indianapolis road course race in the Xfinity Series. Neither of them won, but both Cindric’s No. 33 and Allmendinger’s No. 16 will be in the fight Sunday.
Chase Briscoe: The man who did win last year’s Xfinity race at this track has a fair shot at his first Cup win this weekend. Chase Briscoe hasn’t had an easy rookie season but has shown his pedigree on road courses this year, including a ninth-place finish this past weekend at Watkins Glen. That was the No. 14 team’s third top-10 finish in 2021; all of them have come on road courses.
Ross Chastain: Ross Chastain’s No. 42 team has been on a relatively solid run as of late as the “Melonman” continues to build momentum. A 12th-place finish at the Glen may not look all that impressive but Chastain ran inside the top-10 for much of the day and showed speed and competitiveness once again, something he and his team have done much more consistently as of late.
Tyler Reddick: Tyler Reddick may be the best driver in the Cup Series that has never been to victory lane. Whether it will come this weekend or not is up in the air, but he and his No. 8 team have worked hard this year to put him in the conversation. As I mentioned on the last episode of “The Backroad,” Reddick set a personal challenge for himself to work harder to get better on the road course events, and it’s paid off. His 10th-place effort at Watkins Glen was his third road course top-10 in 2021.
Denny Hamlin: I had to save the most obvious for last. It’s still quite unbelievable that Hamlin’s No. 11 hasn’t found its way to the winner’s circle yet in 2021. He’s finished 14th or better in every road course race this season, which includes a trio of top-five finishes. More often than not, when we expect unpredictability at a race we receive an entirely predictable winner; I expect that to be the case on Sunday.