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Remaining ringers face diminished expectations

June 23, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Remaining ringers face diminished expectations
Sonoma, Calif. -- Road experts like Said can't make the impact they once did in modern cars

There was a time when Boris Said would come to a road course for an event on NASCAR's premier series and be considered a contender for the victory. Now, he'd be content leaving the raceway at Sonoma with a finish inside the top 15.

"... These guys for sure are the best in the world, in my opinion. To do it twice a year [against them on road courses] is just tough."

--BORIS SAID

That's the stark reality for the men once known as road-course ringers, who these days are the last of their breed. Once, they came to Cup events with good cars and good chances of beating the regulars on courses that featured right turns as well as left. Now, their numbers are dwindling, thanks to drastic improvement in road-course racing on the part of full-time drivers. Those ringers that do still show up sometimes struggle to remain competitive as a result.

The affable Said continues to be the stalwart, this weekend piloting a No. 32 car that's been driven on ovals this season primarily by Reed Sorenson and Ken Schrader. Four other ringers were entered the race, but one of those failed to qualify, and none of them are in cars that would be considered top-flight. Time was, Said would end up in Petty, Jasper or MB2 cars, and tasked with trying to steal a victory. Now, the ringers' primary goal seems to be getting cars outside the top 35 car in owner points safely into the field.

As for winning? Forget it.

"You can't race these cars once or twice a year and be competitive, because they are hard to drive," Kevin Harvick said. "In order to get the speed out of them, they are not like a Grand-Am car or something with a lot of downforce, or something with sequential shifters. These cars are just hard to drive.

"I think a lot of people that come in and have driven the cars will tell you that. I think the road-race guys will tell you that. Most of them nowadays, because everybody is so good, they don't get the quality of rides that they used to get because everybody is competitive. They are just hard cars to drive, and you are not going to be competitive if you do it a couple of times a year."

Said has spent this year racing Grand-Am sports cars full time. Before this weekend, the last time he sat in a Cup vehicle was during last summer's race at Watkins Glen International, where he finished 22nd. He's still a master on road courses -- he's taught about half the NASCAR field how to drive on them -- and still competitive, as he showed in his tirade on Greg Biffle at the Glen last year. If he's in the mix with five laps remaining, he won't hold back.

"Frankie Stoddard is not paying me to pull over and let anyone by," he said, referring to his car owner.

But as good as Said is, he readily admits he's at a huge disadvantage trying to parachute in and get a handle on a Cup car in just a few days -- especially given that he's pitted against drivers who pilot them all year long.

Toyota/Save Mart 350

Practice 2
Pos.DriverSpeed
2.Marcos Ambrose93.381
3.AJ Allmendinger93.342
4.Juan Montoya93.287
5.Brad Keselowski93.244

"That's the toughest thing," he said. "To come in here, no matter how good a race car driver you think you are, these guys for sure are the best in the world, in my opinion. To do it twice a year is just tough. I haven't sat in one since Watkins Glen last year, and that wasn't my best result. But still, I relish the challenge. I feel like it's a privilege that I get to do it, and I think I've had a great career doing it. Maybe I haven't won a lot of races, but I love competing. If we were competitive and maybe ran in the top 15, that would be like a win."

The disparity was certainly evident in Saturday's final practice, where Said was the fastest of the ringers -- and 32nd on the speed chart. Nine-time road course winner Jeff Gordon led the session at 93.225 mph, followed by Greg Biffle, former Sonoma winners Juan Montoya and Jimmie Johnson, and AJ Allmendinger. Marcos Ambrose, who will start from the pole in the race, was 11th-quickest in the session.

The remaining ringers placed well down the list. Tomy Drissi -- driving a No. 10 car that's been piloted on ovals this season by David Reutimann, Tony Raines and Danica Patrick -- ran off course and damaged the rear end of his vehicle en route to posting the 38th-fastest speed. Chris Cook, driving a No. 19 that usually features Mike Bliss in the seat, was 40th. It's a difficult transition. One that former road racer Ambrose knows well. Cup cars, he said, are simply like nothing drivers see anywhere else.

Toyota/Save Mart 350

Happy Hour
Pos.DriverSpeed
2.Greg Biffle93.202
3.Juan Montoya93.075
4.Jimmie Johnson92.996
5.AJ Allmendinger92.992

"I think you would struggle to find another racing car that handles quite like these NASCAR Sprint Cup vehicles," Ambrose said. "They are a beast to drive. Most road racers are used to a car driving them around the track pretty much. A stock car won't do that around here. You have to really handle it and drive aggressively and get the most out of it. The level of talent is exceptionally high. You think that half the field can't get around the road course, but that is a fallacy. That is not right. These guys know how to get around here and are seriously good.

"We know the cars really well, too. We know how to tune on them. What other racing car has a truck arm rear suspension with a spring half way inboard from the tire? What other car has steel wheels? What other race car has way too much power for the level of grip? It is one of the heaviest race cars you will ever drive -- 3,500 pounds is a seriously heavy car. That is what makes the sport so great. I am not surprised that road ringers can't adapt to these vehicles, because they are very unique."

All of which leaves Said, despite his talent and resume, at a decided disadvantage -- and facing lowered expectations as a result. "I think a realistic goal is, if I can stay out of trouble, not make Greg Biffle or anybody like that mad, run in the top 15 and have some of the fenders still on it," he said, "I think Frankie will be happy."