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Road course a new set of challenges

After 15 races of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, where the cuisine and beverage of choice for fans at the track is a giant turkey leg and tall-boy Budweiser, we go to the serene surroundings of Sonoma County, where cheese, crackers and wine stuffed in picnic baskets along the rolling hills can be found packed with Northern California race fans.

It truly is a different scene and it’s very appropriate that in such a vastly different type of setting that the racing be about as different as it can be, or at least different from 34 of the 36 scheduled races.

Only twice a year do NASCAR fans get to see racing on road courses, where the big bulky stock cars traverse through left and right turns in a racing style that the rest of world can relate to, once at Sonoma, and the other at Watkins Glen in early August.

Because the racing is such a change from the constant left turns of the weekly ovals, a few drivers really stand out from others just because of their past history.

The drivers who grew up through the ranks of stock car racing on ovals dread the two races a year, while others who had go-kart and open-wheel racing experience before jumping into stock cars thrive on it.

Entering and exiting turns and maximum speed with minimal breaking is the key to success on the road courses and while it may not be genetically proven that some are better from birth, history has shown that those with the early experience from a young age do better than those who don’t.

Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Robby Gordon all use their past experience and excel big time for these races while others like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth all race like they can’t wait for next week to arrive.

At the beginning of the year, the NASCAR Nation was complaining non-stop about Jimmie Johnson winning every week as he took three of the first races.

Since then, Denny Hamlin has gone on to win five of the last 10 races with Kyle and Kurt Busch combining to win three of the other 10, prompting the boo-birds to heckle from around the country again.

I don’t get it; do the fans want no one to win, or do they just want someone new to win every week? Or is it just a matter of 50 percent of the NASCAR Nation being Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans who haven’t seen him win in the last two years? It’s probably a combination of all of the above.

Hamlin and the Busch brothers will be an interesting look this week because they have had some success on the road courses and all three are running better than everyone else right now.

The driver to key on this week is Tony Stewart, who is searching for his first win this season and also battling to cement his place within the top-12 in the Chase for Championship. The two road courses give Stewart an edge over all the other fringe drivers that are borderline at making it.

A driver much like Stewart, who can make up some serious ground in points both this week and at Watkins Glen, is Juan Pablo Montoya. Unlike Stewart, Montoya isn’t within the top-12 at the moment. In fact, he’s barely in the top-20 – 189 points behind Mark Martin for the 12th and final position with 11 races to go. He is a long shot to make it, but he and his team know that their advantage over everyone else lies within the two road courses, and maybe Indianapolis and Pocono. This week is an absolute must quality-finish for Montoya, as in a top-3 finish for him to utilize and gain ground from his road course pedigree.

Sonoma’s all-time leader in wins is Jeff Gordon with five over his career. His last win came in 2006, but Gordon admitted that his team hasn’t put as much focus on their road course program the last few years and it’s reflected at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen. His skills are still there and he’s hungry for a win, so if he gets in on the right pit sequence, he could be a contender once again.

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