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Sonoma and NASCAR: Strange Brew, yes, but it's worked well for 20 years. Billy Jr. made the right call

 Strange world out here. Tony Stewart, seemingly suspended. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   SONOMA, Calif.
   This odd part of the vast NASCAR world is just a little different.
   Not that far from George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, and Drake's Bay, where the bold can do a shark dive in quite chilly waters, this place just north of San Francisco has always been a little into-the-mystic...
   Infineon Raceway. Once Sears Point Raceway. We may be in the headlands of wine-and-cheese country, up here on the north side of the bay -- the San Pablo part of San Francisco Bay -- where the Sonoma Valley opens up on to a wide tidal plain, at the highway T-intersection of the infamously narrow and jammed Vallejo-bound side of C-37 and a wide 70-mph stretch west and south down to the Golden Gate.
   But the fans that pour in here, and this place can seat 100,000 on a good day for NASCAR, are perhaps more the Oakland/Sacramento/Central Valley crowd than the Menlo Park/Palo Alto/Haight-Ashbury crowd.
   Ernie Irvan, the Salinas native, back when he was the king of Sonoma, may have made that point when he, on a winner's circle PR spin to promote this race, lounged in the backseat of his limo slurping on a beer (Anchor Steam, at least, as I recall).


  Jeff Gordon. 'Hometown boy.' Can he make good finally again? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And the action out on this really rather strange road course, with its hills and dales, and wheel-hopping bounces, can be more high-speed Martinsville than droning Michigan.
    This 1968-era track, for SCCA buffs, first really came to the fore when Riverside Raceway fell to LA area developers in 1988, and NASCAR's Bill France Jr. needed to find a California base for his sport.
    France first looked at a fairgrounds race track site down in San Jose (which perhaps fortunately he didn't buy into), then made a deal for this place, despite intense skepticism that these big, honking stock cars could even maneuver around this tight, hilly, technically demanding road course.
    So France was rightly chortling at the naysayers after Ricky Rudd's romp in the debut summer of '89 proved them wrong.
    Since then, Bruton Smith has bought the place, riled people up, as he likes to do, built some stuff, bulldozed some hills, took the Kulwicki Korner carousel off the map, fought those mysterious red-legged frogs and obstinate landowners nearby, and helped turn this track into one of the stock car tour's prominent – if still seemingly improbable – stops.
    Yes, he's threatened to pull this date and move it to Las Vegas....but NASCAR isn't about to give up the U.S.' fourth-largest market.
   Now, with the World Cup and the U.S. Open down in Pebble Beach, and the Lakers having just won the NBA championship, Smith&Company get to show what kind of show they can really put on here.
   And after that snooze-fest at Michigan, there may be some heat on these drivers to make something happen.
   Couldn't be coming to a much dicier place to play like that....

  Scott Speed. The one-time Formula 1 driver, from nearby Manteca, Calif., now lives in Winston-Salem, N.C. If he can make it in NASCAR, this should be a track where he shines (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The storylines for Sunday's Sonoma 350K – the Toyota/Save Mart 350 – are curious:
   -- Jeff Gordon, most obviously. He's from Vallejo. He's won more road course races than anyone in NASCAR history. He's won here five times. And he's been winless on the Sprint Cup tour for more than a year now.
   -- Jimmie Johnson, his teammate. He's been working out hard on his road course program the past two years, trying to add a road course victory to his already impressive resume. And he's starting on the front row, next to....
  -- Kasey Kahne. The leader of the Ford pack this spring, and perched to give the Blue Oval guys their first win of the year, long awaited. And Kahne's own future remains the subject of much debate. He signed a contract in April to drive next season for Chevy's Rick Hendrick. But they've hemmed and hawed about just whose car Kahne might be in. Team owner James Finch apparently told a Florida TV station the other day that he was talking with Hendrick about fielding cars for Kahne in 2011; Hendrick says there's nothing to that. Now there is speculation that perhaps fellow Chevy team owner Richard Childress might just have a spot for Kahne next season, maybe in something of a driver-lease program, since Hendrick himself cannot have Kahne in an official Hendrick Motorsports car.

  Sonoma: zig-zagging through the wine country (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Kurt Busch. The leader of the Dodge pack has been shining this season with new crew chief Steve Addington. Not known as a great road racer, though. Still, hot enough to win. And Addington is savvy enough to come up with the right race strategy – and this event might be more a strategy race than usual.
   -- Kevin Harvick. The series leader most of the spring, and he's in superb mental condition, quite a change from the angry Harvick who ran here last summer in the midst of a terrible slump. Harvick and Childress teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer may not have brilliant road course reputations, but they've been solid in practice so far, and it's been a very good spring for all three.
   -- Marcos Ambrose. He may well be the best road racer on the tour, regardless of Juan Pablo Montoya's F1 stint. Ambrose, though he's had a tough sophomore season in Cup, finished third here last year and second at the Glen, and he would have won the Nationwide race at Montreal if not for Carl Edwards' late bump-and-run. Yes, there may be some questions about horsepower in this camp. But this track isn't really a horsepower track. It's about driving with finesse. Okay, so Ambrose doesn't have that much finesse, sure, but his aggressive driving just seems to work on these road courses.

  The man to catch: Ford's Kasey Kahne, here with TV anchor Robin Meade (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Tony Stewart. He had a great owner-driver debut in 2009, but 2010 has been so far something of a bust for him. Still, he's a threat to win at every road course NASCAR takes him to. And he and crew chief Darian Grubb may be turning the corner.
   -- Bobby Labonte. He's not a bad road racer, but he comes in here with some uncertainty about his future. Will that be incentive?
   -- Greg Biffle. He may be 'the fastest man in NASCAR' from a pure driving standpoint. But, gosh, he's been all but snake bit this season. At least he doesn't have to crisscross the country this weekend like teammates Carl Edwards and Paul Menard.
   -- Denny Hamlin. The hottest driver in NASCAR, with five wins in the last 10 races. And he figures he could win this one too, though he's not really a favorite on this course.
   -- Montoya. A question mark yet again. He's had speed and cars all spring, but only bad luck. Is Montoya losing his focus?  Only 11 races left to make the playoffs.
   -- Robby Gordon. Long considered one of the most talented road racers in the sport, in any branch of the sport, Dakar, Baja, NASCAR....But sponsorship issues and all those roadblocks that face the few independent owner-drivers in this sport seem to be conspiring against him. Maybe he should just gamble for track position and make a game of it Sunday.
   -- Kyle Busch. He may be the best player in NASCAR today, despite teammate Hamlin's hot run. If so, Kyle can show us what he's really got in this race, because he's starting deep in the field. He won here in 2008, and at Watkins Glen, in that eight-win season.
   -- And the 'ringers.' Boris Said, of course, though he hasn't really done that much lately. Mattias Ekstrom, the little-known Swede subbing for Brian Vickers, in an unusual move by GM Jay Frye. Jan Magnussen, the 36-year-old former F1 racer who has been outstanding at LeMans lately, driving this weekend for Hendrick, in an unusual move too, in a car fielded by Finch.

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  The real racers: NASCAR's long-haul truckers, and the next stop is New Hampshire Motor Speedway, 3,000 miles away (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Mike, are you hearing

Mike, are you hearing anything about Road America being tried out for the Cup Series by running a Nationwide event there? There has been talk about a third road course to the schedule, so if there is one to be added Road America would be a great place to go if the cars are racy there. I don't see them cutting Watkins Glen or Sonoma, so I figure they will be adding one if Road America is ever on the schedule.

Let me go try to check that

Let me go try to check that out right now. If they added a road course, i would think montreal would make sense, since it's a big town, interesting market. road america is just milwaukee, which is already served by chicagoland and michigan. and i'm not sure the safety stuff is up to snuff at RA. let me find carl and brad and paul and ask them.

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