Over the past few years, the term “road course ringer” has been virtually eradicated from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series vocabulary with just a few exceptions, but it seems as if the ringers are out in full force this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.
This coming weekend will see the series debuts of five drivers. Kevin O’Connell, who scored a surprising third-place finish driving for Rick Ware Racing in an XFINITY Series race at Road America in 2014, will drive the No. 15 for Premium Motorsports; Israeli driver Alon Day in the No. 23 for BK Racing, esteemed sports car driver Billy Johnson in the No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports, Josh Bilicki in Rick Ware’s No. 51 and hometown driver Tommy Regan driving the No. 55 in a collaborative effort between Rick Ware Racing and Premium Motorsports. Those five drivers are joined by perennial ringer Boris Said driving the No. 33 for Circle Sport-TMG.
While this year features the return of multiple ringers, over the last few years we’ve mainly only seen Said on a regular basis at Sonoma and the series’ other road course Watkins Glen International. Occasionally, we would get a second or maybe third road ringer added to the entry list, but it didn’t happen often.
In the 1990s and early to mid-2000s, ringers were a commonality at the road courses. We would often see Said along with Toronto’s Ron Fellows, a four-time XFINITY Series winner, Scott Pruett, P.J. Jones, Brandon Ash, Jim Inglebright among others.
The addition of road ringers in Cup races seemed to slow down in the late 2000s. The reason? Well, that’s easy—full-time drivers were much more capable driving road courses, and while the ringers would often come close, none of them knew the technicality of the cars enough to win. Ironically, the capability was taught by drivers like Fellows at road course specialist schools. He would train drivers on how to properly race, and compete for wins on the road courses, which you could argue began pushing ringers out of competitive rides.
We didn’t totally lose the ringers in NASCAR, though. They just changed series.
While ringers had always been competing in the XFINITY Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series on road courses, they became more frequent competitors when NASCAR continued to add new tracks like Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Road America and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. In fact, two XFINITY races at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal were won by ringers. Fellows won in 2008, and Said followed that up beating Max Papis in a last lap duel in 2010.
So, if ringers were on their way out in Cup competition, why do we have six entered this weekend? All six drivers—with the exception being Johnson replacing the injured Almirola—are driving fairly non-competitive cars. Two of them (Bilicki and Regan) are in non-chartered cars, and the other three (O’Connell, Day and Said) are driving cars that have struggled mightily in 2017.
The advantage to having specialists in non-competitive equipment at road courses is obvious. These drivers can, in theory, get the very most out of their equipment without totally using it up. They will know once they get up to speed in practice where the limit of their equipment is, and how not to push it. They can also gather information for the team going forward to Watkins Glen in August.
With so many ringers back this weekend, it wouldn’t be a total shock to see the same list of drivers or maybe even more at Watkins Glen in two months time.