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The Cup Series road course game has changed

The road course, once a rarity in NASCAR, has become a prominent part of the schedule in recent seasons. This has forced drivers to prioritize the style of racing, but only some have taken to it quickly.

Why have some drivers been able to naturally adapt to road courses while others have had to spend extra time working in the simulator and with coaches?

"It's hard to say. I feel like track-to-track (it) certainly changes," Austin Cindric said during a Tuesday media session. "I feel like Sonoma and Watkins Glen are probably two of the hardest road course races to go into as a new guy. I mean, there are so many laps and so much experience from the traditional Cup Series field of drivers."

Cindric knows what it takes to succeed on road courses. He is someone who grew up racing in a variety of cars and series. For example, he competed in rallycross and in IMSA. He competed in the Bathurst 12 Hour, Australia's premier endurance race, multiple times.

Cindric grew up turning left and right on road courses, which benefited him when he moved to the world of stock car racing. He won five road course races in his Xfinity career and he led laps at both Circuit of the Americas and Road America while making select Cup starts in 2021.

Cindric is a driver who seems to be natural on road courses. The same can be said of Tyler Reddick, who has won three Cup races on road courses and helped his fellow Toyota Racing Development drivers make improvements.

"I mean, you always want people that challenge you and challenge you to be better, and I think that when Tyler came over here this year we knew that he was going to be the bar that we had to set ourselves against," Denny Hamlin said last season at Sonoma.

"When I go to [Circuit of the Americas] and I'm in the simulator well more than a second slower than he is, then I just think about, 'All right, how many road courses do we got left, and how can I cut that down by the time we get to Sonoma? And then how can I cut it down by the time we get to Chicago?'"

While Reddick has won on road courses, Cindric still seeks his first in Cup. Both of Cindric's trips to victory lane in the top series were on oval tracks. He won the Daytona 500 as a rookie in 2022 and then won at World Wide Technology Raceway this season.

Cindric has scored top-10 finishes at a variety of Cup road courses but other drivers have celebrated wins while he has watched. This includes the inaugural Chicago Street Race when three-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen won in his first-ever NASCAR start. Cindric finished sixth.

"I think the game has honestly changed in the last five or six years when it comes to road course racing," Cindric said. "There's been a lot more races on the schedule and a lot more guys that have put much more of an emphasis on their preparation and how to go about that the right way to be prepared and to compete at a high level in those races."

The road course schedule traditionally featured only Watkins Glen and Sonoma. Since 2018, the drivers have taken on such tracks at the Charlotte Roval, the Daytona Road Course, Road America, Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Circuit of the Americas, and the streets of Chicago.

Last season's schedule, in particular, had six races with left and right turns.

Photo credit: Ford Performance

SVG, who Cindric competed against in the Bathurst 12 Hour, is another driver that has naturally taken to road courses and street courses. This is where he has primarily raced in his career. Instead of focusing on road courses, SVG has had to try to learn the intricacies of ovals since moving to NASCAR full-time.

"A new track is hard to pick up," SVG said in response to a question from AltDriver ahead of the Sonoma weekend. "It's only two corners, four corners, but there's so many little intricate details on an oval that make such a difference.

"It's not just one line. There's three or four grooves and it's always changing. So one of my strengths in road racing is consistency, hitting my marks all the time, and doing the same thing every lap. And you can't do that on an oval normally."

SVG's objective this season is to learn NASCAR's ovals while competing in both Xfinity and Cup races. He already has a road course win in Xfinity and a street course win in Cup. In order to be a championship contender, he will need to conquer the oval tracks.

Cindric has already achieved some success on NASCAR's superspeedways and intermediate tracks. But he remains in pursuit of his first road course win in NASCAR's top series. This is something he will pursue this weekend at Sonoma, a track where Cindric finished fifth in 2022.

Achieving this goal will not be simple considering the number of racers with several road course wins in Cup. This list includes such heavy hitters as Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Reddick, William Byron, Christopher Bell, AJ Allmendinger, and Kyle Busch.

"I feel like we've had some good races, but we haven't had great races," Cindric said. "And I feel like in some ways it's somewhat of the expectation, but I feel like you can never underestimate your competition.

"There are some pretty talented guys in the field and it's definitely hard to separate yourself."