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Montoya, Ambrose, Gordon, Stewart...Kurt Busch? So who is the best?

   No one has won more NASCAR road races than Jeff Gordon. But he's not been to victory lane in five years (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   So just who is the best road racer in NASCAR today?
   Not that Sunday afternoon's 220-mile sprint (1 p.m. ET) will necessarily determine that, or that June stock car tour stop in Sonoma, a track that has become increasingly unpredictable….  
   The stock answer to the road course question for years has been easy – Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart.

   However, time marches on. And Gordon, who has won more NASCAR road races in his career than anyone in history, hasn't won one of these since 2006, and his last win at Watkins Glen was way back in 2001.
   Stewart could now be the man. But he sometimes seems to have more on his agenda….remember his curious duel with Brian Vickers at Sonoma, and how Stewart turned a potential race win into a 39th place finish. Stewart hasn't won on the tour since last fall, and he's been in something of a funky mood much of the season, for whatever reason.
   Carl Edwards, the Sprint Cup tour points leader, recalls that thrilling battle with Marcos Ambrose at Montreal in the Nationwide race two years ago ( http://bit.ly/329dqO ), and -- now that Ambrose is a Ford teammate, and helping Edwards with tips here – Edwards says Ambrose is good enough that if he were in good equipment in Formula 1 he could win that championship.
   High praise indeed.
   Yes, Ambrose still hasn't won a Sprint Cup tour event.
   But then Ambrose last summer did have a win all but locked up at Sonoma (http://bit.ly/o8cbSp , point comes about 4:00) until he stalled while leading late.
   Sunday's race here could be a replay of 2010, Juan Pablo Montoya versus Ambrose, with Kurt Busch lurking:   http://bit.ly/qQk4tK 


   Game face: Marcos Ambrose. Best road racer on the tour today? What can he do with Juan Pablo Montoya this time at the Glen? And next weekend he'll be shuttling between the Sprint Cup stop in Brooklyn, Mich., and the Montreal Nationwide stop in Canada. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)  


   Kurt Busch dominated Sonoma in June, rather improbably, since he'd never won a Cup road race.
   How that Busch-Jimmie Johnson feud might play out here, well, that could be worth the price of admission.
   For Montoya there may be added incentive – he needs a win or two to have a shot at making the playoffs. The last three weeks he's finished 32nd, 28th and 30th, a woeful stretch that has dropped him out of the top-20.
   Ambrose hasn't done much better: 20th, 34th and ninth. He's 23rd in the standings.
   Does winning the pole here say much about what to expect in this two pit-stop sprint?
   The last time someone won from the pole here was 1998, when Jeff Gordon did it.
   In the last five races at this legendary upstate New York track there have been four different winners, Montoya beating Ambrose last summer, Stewart winning in 2009 and 2007, Kyle Busch in 2008 (taking Sonoma too, in a rare double), and Kevin Harvick in 2006.
   At Sonoma, a more technical road course than the faster Glen, there have been six different winners in the last six races: Kurt Busch this June, Jimmie Johnson in that controversial 2010 race, Kasey Kahne in his 2009 surprise, Kyle Busch in 2008, Montoya in a 2007 gas mileage finish, and Gordon in 2006.
   Not exactly leaving us with a clear-cut winner in this debate.
   On top of that, the last few races at Sonoma's Infineon Raceway have been unusually action-packed, with drivers remarkably aggressive. Some even call Sonoma 'the new Bristol,' for its slam-bang racing.
   Watkins Glen finishes are notoriously wild, with big crashes late-race not improbable.
   And this season has seen more than its share of surprise winners, from Trevor Bayne at Daytona, Regan Smith at Darlington, Paul Menard at Indianapolis, just a few.
   Luck? Nope. Strategy.


   Kurt Busch: He certainly knows how to get attention. And he won at Sonoma in June. How'd he do that again? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)  


   But back to the basic question: who is the  best road racer in NASCAR?
   That used to be fairly easy to determine. Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace were amazing, with their footwork.
   But then transmissions improved and now drivers only need to clutch-shift occasionally. They can just jam it in whatever gear they want, without using the clutch.
   Mark Martin was once the tour king, when team owner Jack Roush appeared to have the technological edge on these type tracks.
   At road course, technology used to be a big factor, which is one reason Robby Gordon invariably could come up with an amazing run -- in addition to his superior car control.
   How much of a factor technology is on the tour's road courses today isn't clear.
   Without having to use the clutch, well, that's certainly a plus here for injured Brad Keselowski, whose feet were injured in that crash last week testing at Road Atlanta. Keselowski and teammate Kurt Busch have two of the fastest cars here, as they have had at many tracks this summer.
   The better the brakes, the faster into the corners. And that has led to a technological war at the wheel wells at Sonoma, the Glen and Martinsville too.
   Driver technique is key too – but where NASCAR road racing was once a matter of finesse, nowadays it appears to be more a battle of brute force. Which could give the edge at the moment to Ambrose, whose hard-driving is well known. The 2010 battle with Montoya was remarkable.
    But there are always the road course 'ringers,' like Boris Said.
    Said is a world-class road racer who has worked NASCAR the past several years, trying to parlay his road racing teaching skills into a regular Cup ride.
   Said, like Ambrose, has yet to win on the Sprint Cup tour, but Said has made enough headlines over the years…like last summer here, when Stewart and Said tangled on the short stretch between turn one and the esses:  http://bit.ly/oulXC6


   Tony Stewart: In a funky mood this season, and what in the world was he thinking at Sonoma two months ago, giving up a shot at the win in fit of pique? Not quite a championship move. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)  


   At one point the best pure road racer in NASCAR would likely have been Robby Gordon, whose Baja and Dakar exploits have backed up that claim. And who could forget Montreal, 2007, Nationwide: http://bit.ly/qMXluk
   And the two men long considered the two best NASCAR road racers, Stewart and Jeff Gordon, have had their run-ins too:  http://bit.ly/oFFltq
   Road racing in NASCAR has become quite physical the last few years.
   Still, strategy can be key. Remember Geoff Bodine's unexpected win here, playing the then-novel gas mileage game?
   Gas mileage, of course, has become a notorious issue on the stock car tour this summer, with nearly every race determined by fuel efficiency, or fuel miscalculations.
   Consider Paul Menard's Brickyard win just two weeks ago, when Jeff Gordon had the faster car yet couldn't beat Menard's fuel mileage gambit.
   Throw in some iffy weather here, typically an issue in summer up here by the Finger Lakes, and it becomes a volatile mix. Remember just last Sunday, at Pocono Raceway, just two or three hours south of here: Joey Logano dominated, until a nearly two-hour rain delay, and the threat of race-ending showers threw everyone into a tizzy. That race boiled down to Kyle Busch vainly chasing ailing Brad Keselowski for the win.

    Brad Keselowski: despite a broken foot, he won in high-style at Pocono, his second tour win of the year. And he's fast here at the Glen. But he's still such a newbie at all this. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Kyle Busch?
  He's been a different driver this season, a little more under control (suddenly in sharp contrast to Jimmie Johnson, whose new-found anger has become an issue). Making the playoffs and keeping his head on right for the championship run, that's Busch's game plan. And he's become seemingly immune to head games.
   Busch had off weeks at New Hampshire and Indianapolis, but he and crew chief Dave Rogers came firing back strongly at Pocono.
   What here? Well, in 2008 Kyle Busch won both Sonoma (http://bit.ly/9oYnPP ) and the Glen  (http://bit.ly/qhlget ) .
   And that's still got some people scratching their heads.
   Still, the man of the moment here appears to be Marcos Ambrose.
   Yes, he's never won a Sprint Cup tour event.  But then he's only been full-time since 2009, after making his first series start at Sonoma in the summer of 2008.
   What has Ambrose done in his brief time in NASCAR is, well, make a lot of headlines on the few road courses.
  Remember Mexico City, 2008:  http://bit.ly/ppKuXS  (best replay at 4:35)
  And then here, he'd won three straight Nationwide 200s:
   Watkins Glen, 2008, Nationwide:  http://bit.ly/dfSiNH
   Watkins Glen, 2009, Nationwide: http://bit.ly/raKTMy
   Watkins Glen, 2010, Nationwide: http://bit.ly/o7VmEE

  And this weekend Ambrose appears to have quite a contender.
  Now the question is what will Ambrose do with this opportunity?



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