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Analysis: Dirt racing pedigrees translate to road course success

Bubba Wallace wins the playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway for his first series victory and in the process becomes the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race since Wendell Scott in 1963.

There’s a through line from dirt open-wheel racing to success in NASCAR road course races, a connection that dates back four decades.

Five of Tim Richmond’s 13 career race wins took place on road courses, including four at the 2.62-mile Riverside Speedway in California. Jeff Gordon secured 10 road course victories, with six in a row emanating from 1997-2000. Tony Stewart earned a combined eight wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, including his final Cup Series triumph in 2016 at the former.

That apparent translation from dirt open-wheel racing to Cup Series road races persists with the recent successes of Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, both road course race winners in 2021.

Larson sees the connection between dirt racing and road racing, pinpointing the “feel” of his vehicle as the denominator linking the two forms of driving.

“I’ve always felt like I can feel the car better — a lot better — on a road course because you get more movement of the car,” Larson said. “On an oval, we’re just kind of static the whole time. It’s hard for me to feel because there is no roll or anything like that. On a road course, you can feel the car flex up.”

Larson’s preference for feeling the weight transfer of his car while turning (the “roll”) stems from his formative years on dirt, a genre of auto racing he continues to frequent with success. It’s the feeling with which he’s most familiar, one that assists him in traversing through corners.

“It just kind of fits my brain a little bit better,” he said.

Through 20 career Cup Series starts on road courses, Larson holds a track type-specific Production in Equal Equipment Rating of 2.075, a formidable mark boosted by his two victories this season at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Prior to this season, his first behind the wheel for road course stalwart Hendrick Motorsports, he displayed flashes of road course brilliance including three pole wins at Sonoma and a 2018 Roval showing in which he led a race-high 43% of the contest in what timing and scoring data measured as the fastest car of the event.

This season, piloting a Hendrick car that ranks second in average median lap time on road courses (trailing only teammate Chase Elliott), Larson has been diligent on offense and stingy on defense when it comes to procuring and protecting track position. He ranks third in position retention rate on restarts (88%) and secured surplus adjusted pass differentials 15 and 11 positions beyond his statistical expectation in his wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, respectively.

Road course races tend to focus exclusively on track position — the Roval included — and Larson is one of a few drivers who can be counted on to create more than his anticipated share of positions. As such, he’s among the early betting favorites for the win in Sunday’s playoff race.

Not quite a favorite but certainly capable of fetching a win this weekend is Bell, a fellow dirt track graduate and Larson’s arch rival every winter at the Chili Bowl Nationals. His win this past February on Daytona’s road course was a surprise in the moment but a more understood outcome with the benefit of hindsight. He, like Larson, sees the link from high-banked dirt bullrings to sprawling road courses with riddling corners.

“I would say the big thing is just being able to adapt,” Bell said. “Because the corners are all so different and it’s all really unique. (In) dirt track racing, you’re always having to adapt and improvise. And I think that really relates to road course racing.”

Bell is one of the best short-run road course racers currently in the Cup Series. His 94.12% position retention rate on restarts ranks second (trailing Martin Truex Jr.’s 94.74% rate) as does his 18 position-net gain within two laps of the restart (only Joey Logano, with +19, has a higher total).

Through his work with driving coach Michael Self, Bell has embraced the difficulty of a motorsport genre foreign to those with dirt-centric upbringings. Road racing is now more comfortable, reminding him of the “feel” to which he’s grown accustomed.

“I enjoy the challenge of it,” he said. “You’re slipping and sliding and you can really feel the car move around, which is something a little bit different than the short tracks or the mile-and-a-halves.”

The competitive link from dirt to right-hand corners extends to Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe. Both drivers have delivered memorable road course performances this season.

Reddick captured three stage victories on road courses this past summer and, after working to improve his road racing acumen with former Formula 1 and NASCAR driver Scott Speed, is enjoying a heightened passing acumen.

His -5.93% surplus passing value on road courses last year ranked as the second-worst mark of any Cup driver over the last two seasons. This year, his +1.03% SPV fares as the 10th best, good enough for a pass differential 28 positions better than his statistical expectation.

Briscoe, nurtured through Ford’s driver development efforts heavy on road racing, scored a win on the Roval in the 2018 Xfinity Series race. He was in position to contend for a victory this year in the waning laps of the Indianapolis road course race before contact with Denny Hamlin and a flubbed corner squashed his chance at a good finish. All three of his top-10 finishes this season came on road courses. Races at COTA and Indianapolis were the only contests in which Briscoe and his car ranked inside the top 10 for median lap time.

This current generation of former dirt racers are picking up where their predecessors left off, among NASCAR’s consummate favorites for wins and sterling performances on road courses.