Are Ringers Worth It In The Long Run?

For two weekends every season, NASCAR drivers get to do more than turn left. The road courses at Infineon and Watkins Glen give drivers a challenge that they get at no other track on their schedule: Road races.

And it's become typical for a few teams to bring in "ringers" for these two races, drivers who specialize in driving road courses.

Now when you have a team that only runs a few races every year, it's not a bad idea. You want to bring in a driver who is going to give you the best chance to finish near the top, and earn the most money possible for your team. That way, perhaps those winnings will help you to run in more races the next season. If that's the situation for your team, hiring a ringer makes a whole lot of sense.

But if you're a team that already runs all 36 races each season, does a "ringer" make sense for only two races?

One of the more obvious teams in this situation is the Chip Ganassi owned #40 car. Of the 36 races this season, David Stremme will be piloting the car for 34 of them. Although he's a rookie, he's obviously "their guy" for this team. Yet for the two road course races, Ganassi placed Stremme on the sidelines, and put a "ringer" in the driver's seat.

Okay, so Stremme wasn't exactly "on the sidelines", having nothing to do with the race. He was acting as a spotter for the car he normally drives. But the point is, he wasn't driving the car he normally drives.

And why not?

Well, the obvious answer is that Stremme doesn't have as much experience with road course racing, and bringing in Scott Pruett would give the team a better chance of winning, or at least finishing in a better position than they would if Stremme drove the car. As far as that goes, it worked out at Watkins Glen, where Pruett finished 6th, pocketed a large chink of winnings for the team, and earned some much needed owner's points.

In the short term, that may be just what the team needed. They got some cash to operate with (although for a multi-car team like Ganassi, I hardly think that's a major concern. They wouldn't be a multi-car team if they didn't have plenty of operating cash). They got some owner points to keep them in the top 35 and a guaranteed spot in the next race.

But none of that happened earlier in the season at Infineon. Pruett finished that race in 30th place. Would Stremme, with his limited experience, have fared much worse? Who knows?

And what does this do for the team in the long run. Does Ganassi plan to bring in a more experienced road course driver every year? What if Stremme were competing for a driver's championship, or trying to get into the chase? What if he had been closer to the top of the Rookie-of-the-year standings this year? Taking him out of the driver's seat for two races all but ends any hopes of those things happening.

If you bring in someone with "more experience", then exactly where and when is David Stremme supposed to gain experience? This year, the #40 team has been mathematically eliminated from the Race for the Chase. And Stremme was pretty much out of Rookie-of-the-Year contention. So what did the team have to lose by having Stremme drive the car on the road course? Perhaps some owner points, and dropping out of the top 35. But Stremme has been qualifying on time at most other tracks anyway, so those owner points then don't become as important.

This would have been a perfect chance for Stremme to gain some valuable experience on the road course. There was little to lose, and much to gain. Instead, he was sitting in the spotters' boxes.

So what happens next year, if the team is in contention for the chase, and Stremme still has no experience on the road-course. Does Ganassi bring in another ringer? That would certainly end those chances. But when you're in the middle of a championship run, that is certainly not the time to be "learning" how to road race, or to be "getting experience". The time for that was this season. Ganassi chose not to give it to his rookie driver.

We'll have to wait until next season to see if that decision comes back to hunt him.

Published on August 18, 2006 in