Monday, June 20, 2011

Sonoma Storylines

Jeff Gordon has five Sonoma wins over his career (Getty)
Right turns join left ones this weekend at Infineon Raceway.

Road course racing returns for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, a style only seen at Infineon and Watkins Glen International, twice a year.

This type of racing often brings unpredictability and hard-fought intensity. Mirroring the competitive balance of the 2011 season (10 different winners in the first 15 races), Infineon has offered up six different winners in the last six races. And lately, drivers more often associated with oval prowess have conquered the Northern California road course – Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson.

Though the setting is different, the style is not for the NASCAR Nationwide Series this weekend. For the second time, the series will run at historic Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.


Wild Card Hopefuls Eye Infineon Road Course
Montoya could be in line for a wild card spot with a win.
Four drivers, especially, must have this one circled.

Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose – four drivers outside the top 10 – have Wild Card hopes, much of which depend firmly in a successful trip to Infineon Raceway.

After race No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway, the top-10 drivers earn berths into the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Spots 11 and 12 go to those drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20 in points.

With two wins this season, Gordon would own the No. 1 Wild Card spot if the Chase began today. The road-course king, who owns an all-time series high nine road course victories, has five wins at Infineon – but none since 2006. He has finished in the top 10 in each of the last five Infineon races.

Stewart, despite a seventh-place finish at Michigan, fell out of the top 10. Don’t expect him to stay there for long – he has two Infineon wins, and top 10s in the last four races there.

Montoya, likewise a road-course guru, nabbed his first career win at Infineon in his rookie year of 2007. He has finished in the top 10 every year since.

Ambrose, currently seven points outside the top 20, was the tough luck loser at Infineon last year. He held the lead with seven laps remaining, but stalled during a caution period, giving up the top spot. Jimmie Johnson went on to grab his first road-course win; Ambrose finished sixth. Ambrose has two top 10s in his last two Infineon races, including a third in 2009.

The four drivers also hold the top four spots in the NASCAR pre-race Loop Data Driver Ratings: Tony Stewart leads the series with a 110.4 followed by Juan Pablo Montoya (108.6), Marcos Ambrose (108.4) and Jeff Gordon (100.2).

Top 10 Battle Tightens Up
Denny Hamlin’s first win of 2011 at Michigan caused a standings shakeup – and a virtual dead heat around the all-important top-10 spot.

Those in the top 10 after Richmond earn Chase berths, but also get three bonus points for each win during the 26-race regular season.

Hamlin, with the victory, launched three spots to ninth. Tony Stewart, despite a solid seventh-place finish at Michigan, dropped two spots to 11th.

But those standings positions are separated by a microscopic margin.

Just two points separate eighth-place Ryan Newman and 11th-place Stewart.

A Road Course Tradition: The Ringers
A race at a road course always brings some new blood into the series. They are known as the "road course ringers."

Experts at the style, these drivers – namely Boris Said, P.J. Jones – often contend for wins at both Infineon and Watkins Glen.

But a victory rarely happens. The last time a "road course ringer" won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race was 1973 when Mark Donohue won at Riverside International Raceway.

There are four notable "road course ringers" on this year’s preliminary entry list – Tony Ave, Andy Pilgrim, Brian Simo and Jones.

Coors Light Pole Qualifying Vital At Infineon
Intrigue envelopes qualifying day this weekend, for several reasons.

For one, Kurt Busch has won three consecutive Coors Light Poles. The last driver to win four straight: Ryan Newman in 2004. The record for consecutive poles is five, by Bobby Allison (1972), Cale Yarborough (1980) and Bill Elliott (1985).

Also, winners at Infineon often come from a top-10 starting position – 17 of the 22 winners have started seventh or better, and 20 of the 22 started 13th or better.

Rivalries Sparked At Infineon
Tight confines lead to tight racing at Infineon.

But it also leads to hot tempers. To pass at Infineon, drivers often have to resort to a little fender bending. Infineon is famous for the nudge, then the pass.

But sometimes a tap gets rough and drivers get angry.

Jeff Gordon made few enemies for his aggressive style last year. The list included Martin Truex Jr., Elliott Sadler, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch.

Expect similar feistiness this time around.

- NASCAR Media Services

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