Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sonoma Preview: Toyota / Save Mart 350

By Micah Roberts

Ever since the NASCAR circuit rolled out of Las Vegas in early March with all of it’s gigantic corporate hotels and spas, the NASCAR teams have missed that type of luxurious amenity.

Of course Vegas isn’t the only place that knows how to pamper a guest, but because of Vegas’ nature and with so many stars roaming, folks aren’t too star struck by a driver which makes being away from the track during race week more enjoyable than most for them. They can blend in like no where else on tour.

While the kids and Dads love the energy of Vegas and all the shows, the wives of the drivers always have the middle of June starred on their calendars, because that is usually when the NASCAR tour cruises into Sonoma Valley, California, right in the middle of America’s best wine region.

Other than sampling the best wines before the rest of the wine world gets to at the thousands of Vineyards throughout the region, the Sonoma Valley has also made itself known as one of the best places to pamper your spouse. Between all the world class spa’s with all the calmness and serenity that an agriculturally rich community exudes, one can feel taken away in the same instance like the old Calgon commercials.

It’s got the aristocratic feel of a Beverly Hills without the hustling, bustling snobs, traffic and black Mercedes everywhere. There is no place like it!

The race weekend also stamps a festive occasion at the raceway, where the 1.99 mile, ten turn road course turns NASCAR into something like a Formula One scene in Europe. Instead of beer stands everywhere like at a traditional oval, there is a mix of wine, fresh fruits, cheese and crackers. It really is quite a different scene and a welcomed change.

For most pure racing enthusiasts, the road course events tend to be their favorites because it brings an international flair to the American stock car series which normally just makes left turns all day.

The road course races are the truest test of a drivers individual skills.Of course a fast engine and great set up helps, but it is the drivers show. He is the one responsible for hitting that perfect line in and out of each turn at maximum speed. One little slip up along the ten differing turns and varying elevation changes can be more costly than any error made at any other track.

With everything resting on the driver, it’s easy to see why there is such a small fraternity within NASCAR that actually do well year after year. It’s also a reason we see several ringers, or hired guns take over existing cars for the two road course races. Drivers who normally participate on roads in different racing series always show up for these events because their skills are superior to most in NASCAR on the roads.

The favorite to win this week is Las Vegan Kyle Busch based simply on his road course runs last season at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. He also won at Mexico City in the Nationwide series race there giving him an unheard of total of three wins on the roads in NASCAR’s major series. Through all of his success at the Bull Ring in Las Vegas, who would have known that he was such an accomplished karting racer too. It turns out that his initial beginning into racing at a very young age was in the karts weaving in and out of any course he could find, including one made at his house.

The short list of drivers after Busch to contend for the win this week is Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, and Juan Pablo Montoya. It’s no surprise that with Busch, they are the only drivers to have won at Sonoma in the last 11 years.

If you add Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick to the mix, the seven of them are the only active drivers to have won a road race at Sonoma and Watkins Glen combined. That is a very short list of winners for the last 16 years of racing in any series.

Mark Martin just got his third win of the season last week at Michigan and could be poised once again to contend for a road course win, which would be his first since 1997. He has a total of four road wins that include three straight at Watkins Glen BJG, which means before Jeff Gordon.

The combination of Roush adding more cars to his operation and the emergence of Jeff Gordon on the road courses made it tough for Martin to win again. Gordon would go on to win nine times between the two courses.

It wasn’t until Tony Stewart emerged that Gordon had any real competition, but at the same time, much like Gordon did to Martin, Stewart kind of took over the role as driver to beat on the roads. Between the two tracks, Stewart has compiled six wins.

Robby Gordon is kind of like the black sheep of NASCAR. He’s always been brash, doesn’t care about what the other drivers think, and walks with a swagger of knowing that he might just be the most complete driver of them all. This guy races everything, and does it well from Rally Races, Off Road events such as the Baja 500 he just won, and even Indy cars.

The series he has the least success in is NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, however, the road courses are his equalizer. He performs at a very high level with cars that are well below the quality of all the other active drivers who have won on a road course.

I was always on the fringe about Gordon and his brashness, at least until this season when NASCAR visited Las Vegas. A couple fans asked Robby to sign a NASCAR poster for them so they could send to it to a soldier they knew in Iraq.

Gordon not only signed it, he took the poster into the garage and had every driver sign it.Although it has nothing to do with his racing, it has everything to do about his character and who he is.

I am now a Robby Gordon fan and will be rooting for him this week in what will be his best opportunity to win a Cup race since leaving Richard Childress.When asked about his chances at Sonoma this week, Gordon was pretty confident.

"I'm looking forward to Sonoma…but the double-file restarts won't make any difference," Gordon says. "The leader (who gets to chose inside or outside) will take the inside every time and force the outside guy out.

"We've been testing for Sonoma for two months now, and the last time we were this well prepared for Sonoma we won it. So we could do it again."

Go Gettum’ Robby!

Top 5 Finish prediction:
1) #7 Robby Gordon (15/1)
2) #42 Juan Pablo Montoya (10/1)
3) #14 Tony Stewart (6/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (4/1)
5) #24 Jeff Gordon (7/1)

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