Ranking the Top 5 Road Course Drivers in NASCAR History
While most of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule consists of four-turn ovals, there are times where drivers make right and left turns on road courses.
In fact, the Cup Series featured seven road course races in 2021. It’s more important than ever for drivers to excel at that style of track.
There have been some great road course drivers over the years. It’s no coincidence that nearly all these guys are either Cup Champions or Hall of Famers.
Let’s go ahead and look at the best NASCAR road course drivers of all-time.
5. Tim Richmond
Tim Richmond’s NASCAR career ended way too early. He raced just six full-time seasons in the Cup Series in the mid-1980s. When he drove, he was as good as anyone could be on road courses.
For the younger fans who may not be familiar, Riverside was a nine-turn, 3.3-mile road course in California. The Cup Series raced there from 1958-1988.
He initially struggled at the track, finishing 20th or worse in his first three starts. However, he turned everything around and captured his first career win in June 1982. Richmond took the lead from a dominant Terry Labonte with six laps to go to score the victory.
When the Series returned to the track in November 1982, Richmond was the one with the dominating performance. He led 92 of 119 laps to pick up his second career victory.
Over his next six races at Riverside, Richmond was unstoppable. Look at what he did in that stretch.
- 4 top-ten finishes
- 2 top-three finishes
He was leading laps but he just couldn’t close the deal.
In 1986, Richmond had what was by far his best season, with seven wins. One of those wins came in his first career start at Watkins Glen International. The Cup Series returned to the track for the first time in 21 years.
Richmond won the race from the pole, leading 29 of 90 laps. He concluded the 1986 season with his third career victory at Riverside. Once again, he won the race from the pole.
Unfortunately, Richmond had to miss the majority of the 1987 season because he was dealing with AIDS.
He raced eight times in the middle of the season, and picked up his final career win at Riverside. He led 48 of 95 laps in his most impressive road course win yet.
In 1989, Richmond passed away at the age of 34.
4. Ricky Rudd
Fans may know Ricky Rudd for his confrontations with other drivers, but “The Rooster” was arguably the best road course racer throughout his career.
During his career, Rudd raced on three different road courses. They were: Riverside International Raceway, Watkins Glen International, and Sonoma Raceway. He had two wins at each track, but Sonoma was likely his best because of his average finish.
Here are his Sonoma stats.
- 2 wins
- 10 top-five finishes
- 11 top 10 finishes
- 134 laps led
- 11.7 average finish
While Sonoma is his top road course track, we’re going to start with his Riverside numbers. Rudd had three DNFs in his first five starts at Riverside before breaking through in June 1983.
He captured his first career Cup Series victory in the race, leading 57 of 95 laps.
His other Riverside victory came in the final race of the 1985 season. He led 27 laps, which was nothing compared to Terry Labonte’s 78. However, Rudd led the final 24 laps en route to the win.
He won in two of his first five starts at the track. In his first win, Rudd led only the final four laps. Just two years later, he led 20 laps in the victory.
Finally, we come to Sonoma.
Rudd won in his first start at the track in 1989. He flat-out dominated the race, leading 61 of 74 laps. He started on the pole in the subsequent three Sonoma races. While he followed up his win with four consecutive top-five finishes, there was some controversy in the 1991 race.
Coming to the final lap, Rudd bumped Davey Allison, who was in the lead, sending him spinning. It looked like Rudd was coming to capture the checkered flag but NASCAR gave him the black flag instead. NASCAR rewarded Allison with the victory while Rudd finished second.
At age 45, Rudd won for the final time in his career at Sonoma in 2002. He led only the final three laps.
3. Tony Stewart
If you ask a NASCAR fan who their top-five road course racers of all time are, you’d get a lot of people saying Tony Stewart.
Stewart raced 18 times at Sonoma Raceway and 16 times at Watkins Glen. While he had his success at Sonoma, Watkins Glen was by far his best road course track.
In fact, his five wins at the track are the most for any track in the Cup Series. But we’ll save that track for later. Let’s start with Sonoma.
He started no worse than fourth in his first four starts at the track. Stewart won in his third start there, leading 11 of 112 laps. He really made himself known as a top road racer after taking down Roddy Gordon and Jeff Gordon.
Denny Hamlin battled Stewart for the final 14 laps. Hamlin finally passed Stewart for the lead on the final lap but Stewart ultimately passed him in the final turn to win his last career race.
Now, let’s discuss Watkins Glen. Stewart had a pair of sixth place finishes in his first two career starts there.
Following a 26th place finish in 2001, Stewart went on an unreal run at the track:
|Race||Starting Position||Finishing Position||Laps Led (of 90)|
Talk about domination. Stewart was nearly unstoppable at the track throughout the 2000s. Even when he was struggling in the final season of his career, he managed to finish fifth.
Overall, Stewart has eight wins, 14 top-five finishes, and 21 top-ten finishes at road courses. His five wins at Watkins Glen are the most in the track’s history.
The NASCAR Hall of Famer is no doubt one of the best to ever do it on road courses.
2. Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon is one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time. Some of his accomplishments include four championships and 93 career wins. Gordon excelled just about everywhere and road courses were no exception.
Gordon’s average finish at Watkins Glen is just 17.5 in 24 starts, but that is more of a reflection of his late-career struggles. Early in his career, he was better than just about anyone.
He finished just 34th in his first start at the track. Following three straight top-ten finishes, Gordon went on a tear:
|Race||Starting Position||Finishing Position||Laps Led (of 90)|
Tony Stewart’s Watkins Glen dominance was impressive, but Gordon’s may have been better.
It was a struggle from there, as Gordon had just two top-ten finishes in his ensuing 15 starts at Watkins Glen. He nearly won the 2007 race after leading 51 laps, but he spun out while leading with two laps to go.
When it came to Sonoma, Gordon’s success lasted his entire career. From 1998-2006, not much stopped Gordon on this track.
Check out these numbers below.
|Race||Starting Position||Finishing Position||Laps Led (of 110)|
In his prime, I’m not sure there’s ever been a driver better than Gordon, especially on road courses.
While he didn’t win at Sonoma after 2006, he finished top-ten in eight of his last nine races. That stretch included three second-place finishes.
When it comes to Sonoma, Gordon has the most wins (five), top-five finishes (14), top-ten finishes (18), poles (five), and laps led (457), and the best average finish (8.3). He did all in 23 races.
Gordon’s final road course stats are nine wins, 20 top-five finishes, 27 top-ten finishes, and eight poles in 47 starts. His nine wins on road courses are the most in NASCAR history.
1. Chase Elliott
Is it too early to crown Chase Elliott the road course king? Some people may think so, but I can’t argue with what he has done in his young Cup Series career.
Elliott has yet to win at Sonoma, but he did finish second there in 2021 after leading 12 laps. He has three top-ten finishes in five career starts there.
Watkins Glen is where Elliott has shown his dominance. Following a pair of 13th place finishes in his first two career starts at the track, Elliott has been dominant in his two most recent starts. Just look at these numbers:
|Position and Laps Led||2018||2019|
|Laps Led (of 90)||52||80|
In each race, he had to hold off Martin Truex Jr., who is a great road course racer himself. The 2018 victory was the first of Elliott’s career.
While other drivers have only raced on two or three road courses, Elliott has raced on six.
In three career starts at the Charlotte Roval, Elliott has two wins and a sixth-place finish. In each win, he led 35 and 27 laps, respectively. Both wins came in a stretch where Elliott won four consecutive road course races.
In 2021, he won the inaugural race at both Circuit of the Americas and Road America. He wasn’t as dominant in those races as he had been in previous road courses, but he did lead 24 of 62 laps at Road America.
That was a lot to digest, so let me simplify it for you. Despite his young age, Elliott is already one of the best road course NASCAR drivers ever.
Other Great Road Course NASCAR Drivers
- Martin Truex, Jr.
- Rusty Wallace
Before Chase Elliott came along, most people considered Martin Truex, Jr. the best active road course driver.
He has three wins at Sonoma and one win at Watkins Glen. He also finished runner-up in both of Elliott’s Watkins Glen wins.
Most people associate Rusty Wallace with short tracks, but he was a great road racer. He won twice at Riverside, Sonoma, and Watkins Glen. His six road course wins are fourth-most all-time.
Dominating regular tracks was always different than getting it done on road courses. Due to that, assessing the best NASCAR road course drivers is part of any sound NASCAR betting strategy.