Looped In: Knowing the road course

June 20, 2013, Mike Forde, NASCAR.com

Sonoma and Watkins Glen have little in common despite being the two Cup road courses

Drivers are quick to let you in on the not-so-secret secret: Watkins Glen and Sonoma have about as much in common as Richmond and Talladega do.

There’s really only one similarity: You turn right a bunch of times, a twice-a-year rarity.

Sonoma’s hilly and narrow, a track where precision is king. Watkins Glen is flat and wide, where speed reigns.

A question often raised by fans and media: Do the stats back that up? Are they truly that different? Let’s see.

Looks alone shed a bright light on the differences. The track maps of Sonoma with its 12 turns and Watkins Glen with its seven suggest why speeds are so different. Long straightaways define WGI; contours aplenty are Sonoma’s signature.

So speed is the variable. The average speed in the post-race box score is misleading, factoring in time under caution into the equation. Let’s toss that out for this argument.

Green flag speed, a Loop Data statistic dating back to 2005, reveals a more accurate view. In last year’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, Martin Truex Jr. ranked first in average green flag speed, with 90.764 mph. During last summer’s Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen at Watkins Glen, winner Marcos Ambrose checked in with the fastest average green flag speed with a blazing 122.284 mph. That’s 31.520 mph faster than Truex’s Sonoma speed.

So how does all that affect the individual?

Not a single driver averages a top-10 finish at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Only Tony Stewart comes close, with a 10.9 average finish at Sonoma and a 7.9 at Watkins Glen.

Surprisingly, Mark Martin comes close as well, averaging a 10.5 at the two road courses. Stats like that makes you wish he added the road courses to his partial schedule. Brian Vickers, who finished fourth at Sonoma last season, replaces Martin in the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota this weekend.

Few drivers have identical stats at both venues. Jimmie Johnson has an average finish of 13.8 at Sonoma, and 13.2 at Watkins Glen. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is likewise consistent -- but unfortunately for him, consistently poor. Earnhardt’s splits: a 22.2 average finish at Sonoma and a 22.7 at Watkins Glen.

The widest gap in the series: Defending series champion Brad Keselowski. He has an average finish of 19.0 at Sonoma and an 8.0 at Watkins Glen. The difference in his driver ratings at each track is likewise stark. Keselowski has a Watkins Glen driver rating of 101.7, but a Sonoma rating of 75.6 -- a difference of 26.1.

Clearly, the challenges both tracks present make them unique. Statistically, they’re different. And a driver’s performance rarely mirrors itself from the Sonoma race to the Watkins Glen one.

But an interesting trend played out when digging a little deeper into the stats. Though a driver’s actual statistics differed from one road course track to the other, their rank amongst their peers did not.

Of the names who make up the top 10 in the Driver Rating for Sonoma and Watkins Glen, seven reside in both: Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.

So, are the two tracks different? Decidedly, yes. But, statistically, if a driver’s strong at one, he or she will be comparatively strong at the other.