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And now Sonoma...after Michigan this may be a relief...for a few laps at least...

And now Sonoma...after Michigan this may be a relief...for a few laps at least...

Blue skies and Marcos Ambrose, at the top of the hill at Sonoma (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   SONOMA, Calif.
   NASCAR road races are curious creatures.
   Legendary Watkins Glen.
   International Montreal.
   Wisconsin's backwoods Road America.
   Mexico City's Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
   And this place, now Sonoma Raceway again, a hilly, twisty, dusty track in the heart of Wine Country.
   Each with its own quirks and distinctive personality. These aren't cookie cutters.
   Drivers mostly put up with these road races. It's not really what they do best.
   But most of the time these unusual events turn out, well, unusual.
   And here on the Marin side of San Francisco Bay, it never rains….


   Kurt Busch, victorious at Sonoma last summer....but not much to smile about this season (Photo:Getty Images for NASCAR)
   Once there were stock car drivers were clearly accomplished road racers.
   Then just about everyone realized the tour's two annual turn-right events couldn't be considered simply throwaways.
   Then teams got serious about their road racing cars, and just about everyone here for Sunday's Sonoma race will have all the trick technology.
   So Juan Pablo Montoya, despite his Formula One credentials, probably won't have any edge over the rest of the guys.
   And Robby Gordon, likewise once considered on the sport's top road racers, shouldn't have any advantage either.
   Uh, Robby Gordon?
   Yes, the flamboyant racer hasn't been seen really since March, when all that electronic fuel injection stuff fouled up his game.
   But he says he plans to return to action here this weekend.


  These guys can get a little wild and crazy at the top of the hill. Tony Stewart finds the dirt, while the pack tries to go three-wide (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
   The easy pick to win Sunday's race is Tony Stewart, who's got good stuff usually this season, who is an excellent road racer (forgive that little tiff here last summer with Brian Vickers), and who just finished a hard-fought second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan.
   And Stewart has Hendrick engine power and engineering, and Hendrick drivers have won five of the last six Sprint Cup events…
   But nobody really figures on Earnhardt going two-for-two. He himself is still looking for his first top-10 at this track.
   One question – will Sunday's 350 be a slam-bang, knock 'em out of the way affair, a Martinsville-type melee, or will it be another gas mileage snoozer, with teams more intent on playing the fuel mileage/pit road game than in putting on a great show?


  Robby Gordon is expected to return to action at Sonoma (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Well, if Marcos Ambrose has his way, better stay out of his way.
   Ambrose is one of the most aggressive racers on the tour, and his road racing talents are fearsome.
   Last year's Watkins Glen winner, Ambrose, might have something here; he's been strong at time this season, including at Michigan, though his team has been somewhat erratic.
   However last June's winner here, Kurt Busch, well, he's on the hot seat. He's not talking with the media anymore, since that $50,000 and suspension three weeks ago for threatening to beat up a reporter at Dover. And James Finch, his team owner, for the time being at least, doesn't typically run that strong on road courses.

   "The expectation on me succeeding at a road course is obviously very high," Ambrose says. "But I apply myself the same every week.  The pressure is not much different; it's just the weight of expectations this weekend and at Watkins Glen. And the expectation of success is what we have to balance out."
    The Glen is a very high-speed road course; Sonoma is much more twisting and technical.  
   "Sonoma is a very twisty, tight, narrow track with a lot of elevation change," Ambrose says.
    "These cars are dinosaurs as far as race cars go.  They've got way too much power, nearly 900 horsepower; they don't have enough tire 'drift;' they're too heavy; and they don't have enough brakes.  
     "These cars are really hard to handle, and you have to manhandle those cars around the track.  They're not going to give you a lap time; it's not going to drive itself.
    "You have to basically take it by the scruff of the neck and force it to go around.
    "You're fighting physics when you've got a car that heavy and that powerful.
    "This is one of the most challenging and rewarding tracks to go to.  
     "I think all the drivers will tell you they love driving the cars around Sonoma; it's just really hard to race around there with the competition the way it is."



   Steve Letarte, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief, has his hands full this weekend (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Passing zones? Well, since owner Bruton Smith took out the carousel, to make room for more seats, the track has changed personality.
   "It's hard to make passes," Ambrose says.
    "You've got to be bumper-to-bumper, and side-by-side, when you do make a good pass.  
     "Even if it's clean, it's very easy to make contact. It's just the nature of the business.
       "It's one of the best races of the year to watch as a fan… and the drivers understand you're going to have to do a few bump-and-runs, you're going to have to make contact to win the race.  
     "We're all prepared for it…and we all understand the consequences."

    Where to try to pass?
   "Turn 11 is actually my favorite passing spot," Ambrose says, of the flat 180 at the end of the backstretch esses. "It's the hardest braking on the circuit. It's got the tightest corner. It's the straightest run into the corner that you've got.  
     "That's the reason there are so many incidents and accidents -- when you try to make a pass late (by outbraking),  the groove is from the outside to the center of the corner, and that leaves a big hole…that you can try to fill with the nose.  
    "The second thing is there's concrete all around that turn.  The crash barrier is very close, and it's easy to get stuck and wedged, and run into, if you get spun out. So a lot of stuff goes on there."
  Right. Just ask Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers….



     Jeff Gordon at the top of the hill. Pretty serene....if you're all alone (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "But I think the corner that creates the most drama is turn seven, at the top of the hill," Ambrose says.
    That's the most picturesque part of the track, and it's got several blind spots.
    "It's very slippery (with dust), and it's one of the slowest corners on the track… and a lot of contact is made there," Ambrose says.
    "Normally a lot of the contact in turn seven gets finished off in turn 11."

    With high drama.

   The key to passing on this track is outbraking:
   "If you can brake deeper than everybody else, you normally stop people from trying to pass you," Ambrose says.
   "But you've obviously got to have eyes in the back of your head when you go road course racing.  You need to be very aware of the guy behind you, and where he's positioned, and what kind of momentum he has on the way into turn 11.  
     "If I think I'm in a position of weakness and he's got momentum, I'll try to defend that position by moving to the inside.  
     "But you've got to be careful, because then he can either do a switchback on you on the way out of the corner, or he could choose to run into the back of you and send you off the track."
   Temper, temper, temper.
   "So you've got to know who you're racing against," Ambrose says. "You've got to balance out the situation -- whether it's worth giving up the spot, or trying to defend.
    "The fastest way and the easiest way for me to stay out of trouble is to be the guy on the attack.  If you're the car coming through the field making the moves, you can control the situation.  
     "If you're the guy going backwards in the pack, you always seem to be the guy who gets caught out and gets spun around."


   The backstretch esses are wicked...one reason Bruton Smith has added grandstands (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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