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The Sonoma line: Jeff Gordon vs Tony Stewart...but expect some surprises

Juan Pablo Montoya: time to make something happen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   SONOMA, Calif.
   NASCAR on a road course?
   Well, these aren't F1 machines, that's for sure. But that's really what makes running one around this hilly, twisty, very fast track so much fun to watch.
   And it would be a lot more fun if track owner Bruton Smith would widen some parts of the track to make for better passing opportunities.
   Like the backstretch esses. Add another lane, put in just a little banking, and voila!
   Still, as it is, Infineon Raceway stands as one of the more remarkable tracks on the NASCAR tour – not necessarily for the action on the track but for the crowds. This should be NASCAR's most difficult market to crack, and yet this wine-and-cheese country has become a surprisingly popular venue.
   The late Bill France Jr. did a good job by adding this place to the tour 20 years ago instead of trying to turn the downtown San Jose fairgrounds into a short track.
   So what have we here this weekend?
   So qualifying has once again proven the most boring two or three hours of the week.
   And for what?
   When NASCAR officials sit down to reassess things, they need to do something about qualifying. The way it's done right now, it's simply a wasted Friday, for just about everyone involved.
   Consider: last year Kyle Busch qualified 30th….and won.
   Consider: two years ago Juan Pablo Montoya qualified 32nd…and won.
   Toyota men Brian Vickers and Busch took the front row for Sunday's 5 p.m. EDT start.
   However winning the pole is no guarantee here that you've got the car to beat. Jeff Gordon, almost 10 years ago, was the last guy to win from the pole at this hilly road course.

Jimmie Johnson (R) and Ryan Newman aren't known as great road racers...but with Hendrick horsepower....and they're both hot this season on the big tracks (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Gordon is one of three clear-cut favorites here, with Tony Stewart and Busch. A win by anyone else would be an upset – but then again not really that surprising, considering gas mileage and pit stop strategy frequently plays a big role here.
   And let's recheck all those mechanical issues some teams have had this season, because this course is very demanding on equipment, and breakage – like brakes themselves, and transmissions – could doom some stars.
   So what really to expect in Sunday's 350?
   Well, keep a close eye on Aussie Marcos Ambrose, who has been a terror on road courses in his short time on the tour. And Saturday's blown engine will put him at the rear of the field, instead of the second row. "We know we still have a great chance to win," Ambrose says. "We may have to put a fender to some to get there...but you have to pick your moments. And everyone you run into, you have to expect them to get you back."
   Now that's my NASCAR!
   Of course keep an eye on Busch, though his luck has been hot and cold this season.
   And watch out for Juan Pablo Montoya. Just what might be going on behind the scenes with his car owner Chip Ganassi and Chevrolet is unclear, but speculation is that GM's NASCAR cuts don't bode well at all for this operation. Ganassi's sponsorship situation has been iffy, and he needs to keep Target….because it appears inevitable that Martin Truex Jr. and sponsor Bass Pro Shops will be announcing in the next few days that they'll be leaving at the end of the season. Truex is expected to take a ride with Michael Waltrip; it's unclear if Bass Pro Shops will go with Truex there or if Bass will move to the Tony Stewart team, which has been amazingly hot all season.
   Too, follow Jimmie Johnson. He's never won on a road course, and that's a become a sore spot with him, one he's worked hard to rectify. And anyone who understands Johnson's work ethic knows that a win is coming eventually.
   And keep an eye on Scott Speed….next week at Loudon, N.H., because the rookie from Formula 1 spun off the course and failed to make the field here. This, remember, is close to Speed's hometown.
   With double-file restarts this time, instead of the standard single-file, there could be some embarrassing moments, because the esses from the starting line uphill to that hard right-hander, where the asphalt suddenly drops out from under you, could be no-man's land. The variation in speeds at that part of the course, at the very top of the hill, is striking. Expect the leader at the line to be out in the dust at least once during the afternoon.
   Robby Gordon is about the only driver here who says the double-files at this course should be no problem. (Gordon says his appeal to sanctioning body SCORE over those penalties after his first-place finish in the Baja 500 two weeks ago could be a lengthy process: "It's going to be a 'process.' Stay tuned.")
   Robby Gordon, because he may be the best pure road racer in the sport, should be one of the favorites…if he weren't so determined to run his own NASCAR team. He was just hitting his NASCAR prime about five years ago, when running for Richard Childress and winning races, when Gordon decided to do it 'his way.'
   Yes, Robby has proven he can survive as an independent in this age of mega-teams. But as a businessman, rather than as a driver. And that's Sunday talent squandered.
   The 'longest' long shot in the field? Hate to say it, but it's Dale Earnhardt Jr. At this point in the season he and new crew chief Lance McGrew have to be focusing on trying to back in the top-12, over the next 11 races. That means they have to make up 255 points from here through Richmond. And to do that, they'll have to pass some formidable competition…and hope some of those guys just behind them don't suddenly get hot.


Now this should make Marcos Ambrose' Sunday a little more exciting, having to start from the rear because an engine change. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




"Robby Gordon, because he may

"Robby Gordon, because he may be the best pure road racer in the sport,"

say what? When did he (or anyone in NASCAR) win Monaco, Monza (twice)and Silverstone?

As far as your larger point, NASCAR at Sonoma is a great success story and the revisions you suggest merit consideration.

ah, er, uh, duh....welllll,

ah, er, uh, duh....welllll, you might have me on that -- hey, maybe we've got a promotion here -- robby vs JPM, one-on-one, in identically prepared something or others. what do you think --

Starting Positions

You mixed up JPM's 2007 starting position with Kyle's 2008 starting position ;-)

i can take care of that right

i can take care of that right now (the power of the internet!) thanks for the poke....

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