Sonoma: Right turns, hired guns

Jun 21, 2005 1:43 AM

This weekend we get to see something that only happens twice a year for the NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers — they’ll be making right turns.

Though there are several variations of tracks on the Cup series tour based on width, distance, banking, and surface, the bottom line is that they are still going in circles never making a right turn. When they hit the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, it truly separates the one-dimensional drivers from the pure racers.

No disrespect is meant to the drivers that don’t perform well on the roads. NASCAR’s roots are in oval racing and many drivers have grown up with nothing, but that whether it’s on dirt or asphalt. The drivers that grew up outside of NASCAR’s roots, or the South, definitely have an advantage. Drivers that raced competitively at one point or another in their youth in go-karts have a built-in learned sense that others just can’t seem to understand.

It gets so bad for some of the NASCAR regulars on short tracks that owners sit their normal drivers down and replaces them with one of the hired assassins. These hired guns are the best of the best in the sports car world, holding titles in just about every type of road course racing.

Because NASCAR is so popular now, these drivers get lots of attention for their prowess, both good and bad. However, the newer group of hired guns have yet to win a race. In the old days of road racing at Riverside, the sports car and Indy drivers used to fill the field and dominate with the likes of sports car legend Mark Donohue, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, and Dan Gurney.

The NASCAR regulars didn’t care much for the roads then either, while those circuit regulars prided themselves as being the best drivers in the world and loved that they could dominate the stock car regulars.

As NASCAR drivers began coming from outside the deep South, they started seeing vast improvements and consistency in the road races. Drivers like Tim Richmond who came from open wheel racing, Terry Labonte from Texas, Rusty Wallace from Missouri, Geoff Bodine from New York started to take control in the road courses.

Oval racing, while very popular in America, is still viewed around the world as simple. Road course racing, from the individual driving in Formula One to the teams at LeMans, features what’s considered the best drivers in the world. However, NASCAR is gaining in perception as they continue to diversify and attract great young talent from all fields of racing.

This week in Sonoma, Joe Gibbs is sitting down Jason Leffler in favor of veteran Terry Labonte (40-1), while Cal Wells is sitting Bobby Hamilton Jr in favor of one of the best sports car drivers of all time, Ron Fellows (12-1).

Other teams are bringing in additional cars specifically for this race so they can bring in some of the top drivers and perform well for their sponsors. MB2 Motorsports has chosen Boris Said (12-1), Chip Ganassi has again tabbed Scott Pruett (10-1), and Richard Childress will be using Brian Simo (25-1). All five "hired assassins" will have a major factor in this race and have a legitimate shot at winning.

The best of the hired guns for my money would be Fellows, but the best equipment for this race would be between Pruett, Said, and Simo.

Of the Cup regulars, you have to start with Jeff Gordon (4-1) who has eight career road course wins in 24 starts. Gordon had gone through a dry spell in the road courses after being almost unbeatable over a five-year stretch until finally winning again in this race last year. The timing couldn’t be better for Gordon and a road course because he’s going through one of the roughest five-race stretches in his career.

Tony Stewart (5-1), like Gordon, raced in just about everything growing up and has three road course wins in his NASCAR career. His arrival in the Cup series is part of the reason Gordon went through a dry stretch. Stewart’s competitive nature guided him to wins and also physically took Gordon out of at least one road course event. That has led to one of the many T-Stew and Gordon off-track altercations.

Robby Gordon (12-1) is the wild card and may be the most diverse driver NASCAR has. He is able to wheel just about anything with a motor in it to a win, evidenced by a Baja 500 off road victory three weeks ago. He swept the road course season as a driver for Richard Childress. Things would appear to be different on paper because he hasn’t been able to compete with anyone in his venture as car owner this year. But his skills can overcome some of the deficiencies of his car.

Other competitive drivers this week this week include Mark Martin (10-1), Jimmie Johnson (18-1), Kevin Harvick (8-1), and Kasey Kahne (15-1).