‘Tis the season for students of dirt track racing to step to the head of the class.
Summer weather brings bright sunshine and hot temperatures. It also brings asphalt surfaces that are slicker and have less grip than races held in cooler parts of the year. This favors the Cup drivers with a dirt track racing background.
Pavement has petroleum as part of its makeup. When warm daylight beats down on these speedways, the oil in the track rises to the surface. For instance New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s pavement is slipperier in July and provides more traction in September.
Cars drive looser this time of year. This is when racers with dirt experience tend to showcase their driving skills. Being raised in an environment when grip was low and laps spent sideways were high, slick asphalt can feel like home.
Tony Stewart’s is the best example of this throughout his career. The USAC triple-crown champion brought thousands of dirt track miles to his Indycar career. The two-time Cup champion had historically not been as strong a force in the series’ early races. Most of his victories have come after Memorial Day. Out of 39 career Cup wins, a grand total of four have come before June.
Like Stewart, Jeff Gordon gained a strong education under the USAC sanctioned open wheel divisions. The car control he learned transformed him into one of NASCAR’s best all time talents and a future Hall of Fame candidate.
Gordon’s win totals do not reflect a certain part of the season like Stewart, but span the calendar more evenly. However, Gordon has been known as a hunter, someone who searches for different lines on a racetrack to match where his car works best. It may not be where he wants to drive, but he will steer through a corner wherever it takes to win a race.
Gordon is a throwback to the previous generation of drivers. Drivers that could make up the difference in a car that didn’t handle the best. Drivers that honed their skills on a dirt surface.
Some of the best talent in the Cup Series graduated from years of sliding cars through clods of clay on Saturday night bullrings.
Carl Edwards is favored to bring the stiffest challenge to unseat Jimmie Johnson’s five straight titles. When Edwards was younger he won races in Midwest dirt modifieds.
Ryan Newman won his first Cup pole position at Charlotte in 2001 in only his third start. He has made a habit of winning poles and setting track records ever since. Prior to Newman’s stock car career, he was a race and championship winning USAC driver competing on many dirt surfaces.
Clint Bowyer is considered to be one of the best talents on the circuit and future title winner. He has similar short track experience to Edwards on the Kansas clay.
Mark Martin is considered to be one of the best to have not won the title. His grassroots late model races as a teenager include plenty on dirt to go with his ASA pavement victories.
Former sprint car aces Kasey Kahne and Dave Blaney are proven winners and could be once again. Kahne is heading to Hendrick Motorsports and I have respect for Tommy Baldwin Racing’s potential in the years to come.
When racing on pavement and the chassis is dialed in perfect, the talented Cup guys head to the front. When the summer heat hits and tires have a hard time gripping the surface, even the talented Cup guys fight loose handling machines.
This is when the dirt racing talent helps them drive a little sideways and still capture trophies after 500 slick miles.
Jimmie Johnson raced off-road trucks as a young man. His dirt racing was mixed with jumps. If a track like Eldora Speedway is to train a champion, maybe it needs to install a ramp for its next sprint car race.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Mondays at 7pm ET/4pm PT. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com.)