NASCAR gets its taste of International racing this week at Sonoma for one of two road course events scheduled this season.
It’s an oddity to see the heavy stock cars making right turns because we’re so used to seeing them go in different shaped circles turning left every week, but it is a welcomed oddity. This is the opportunity to see just how good the drivers actually are at driving.
Not to minimize the talent, but it’s easy to see after a few laps who the fish out of water are. To most of the drivers’ credit, they grew up on ovals in the South, where the only goal they ever had was to race on ovals. Every driver that does well on road courses grew up with that type racing, usually starting with go-carts, and they have excelled at each of the levels they are now.
The candidates to win this week are on a very short list, which include a few names that we only see twice a year in the Winston Cup Series. Those are the hired assassins that owners put in their cars to give sponsors better representation on the two difficult road courses.
Ron Fellows (5-1), who has run several NASCAR races in the Cup, Busch, and Truck series, is the top assassin. Fellows has mostly raced at Watkins Glen, NASCAR’s other road course. At the Sears Point road course, however, Fellows has two victories in a Corvette at the American LeMans series.
Fellows, without a doubt, is the premier road course driver of those attempting to qualify for this weekend’s race in northern California. A master at setting up drivers for the all-important pass, his natural instincts allow him to enter and exit every turn at maximum speed.
The only reason Fellows has failed to win in Winston Cup competition is low budget cars financed by Joe Nemechek, that fall below the standards of most teams. This year, however, he’s got a quality ride in the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevy for DEI enterprises. That Chevy won at Watkins Glen in 2000.
Regular driver Jeff Green was told to sit this one out. In an April test session at Sonoma, Fellows took a similar car and ran a half-second faster than the track record Tony Stewart set last year during qualifying. He’ll have all the resources to make him a winner.
Fellows also brings a wealth of knowledge to the crew. He’ll be able to tell them exactly what needs to be done to the car that will help him get around the corners faster, something that maybe 20 percent of the current drivers can effectively do at Sears Point.
Boris Said (15-1) is the other top hired assassin. Said is another sports car specialist, who sets a mean pace on the road courses and brings a ton of knowledge. He’ll be driving the No. 01 U.S. Army Pontiac for Mike Wallace, filling in for injured Jerry Nadeau.
Said had a good run last year driving for Dave Blaney last year at Watkins Glen, but was involved in an accident at Sonoma. Unfortunately for Said, he doesn’t have the luxury Fellows has.
For the Cup regulars, there are only a handful of drivers that look forward to the road courses.
Sterling Marlin (25-1) suggested last week that instead of having Rockingham lose a race date, they take away the road courses. Marlin has only one top 5 finish in 34 career road course starts.
Dale Jarrett (30-1) is another star with terrible road course numbers. He’s only had two top 5’s in 34 starts.
Jeff Gordon (7-2), the shortest price on the board, has been the favorite for a record 13 consecutive road races. However, these are the highest odds during that stretch. Gordon has seven wins in his last 11 road events, but failed in last two efforts including a personal worst 37th place.
Gordon’s last win in Sonoma came in 2000, which was his third in a row there. His odds this year are based on what could be called a non-win streak for him. Also, there are several more contenders that have stepped up in the last few road events.
Tony Stewart (4-1) has won two of the last four road races. Stewart has been Gordon’s top road racing competitor to the point where the two of them almost came to blows in 2000. Stewart whacked Gordon out of the Watkins Glen race to end Gordon’s six consecutive road course win streak.
Like Gordon, Stewart crafted his skills carting and in other forms of racing beyond ovals. Stewart is hot, putting together three good performances in a row for the first time this season. His confidence should be at an all-time high and he will welcome this type of racing as an edge to move up in the points race.
Robby Gordon (5-1) is now one of the guys. All the feuding, bickering, and reckless driving appears to be a thing of the past. He loves to drive on the road courses. RG was third last year at Watkins Glen, his best road finish. He’s been competitive in every road race, but has always had something go wrong late. Look for him to come strong.
Mark Martin (8-1), before Jeff Gordon went on his run, was King of the Roads. In 29 starts, he had four wins and 18 top 5’s. Martin had top 10 finishes in both races last year and should do the same again.
Rusty Wallace (16-1) has six career road course victories and four on the current Cup roads, but none since ”˜96. His recent road performances have been poor.
Ricky Rudd (28-1) is a two-time winner at Sonoma, including last year. Overall, Rudd has five career road course victories. Sonoma has Rudd’s best track, posting nine top 5 finishes in 14 starts. Though with a lesser team this year, he still should be a factor.
Elliott Sadler (30-1) finished sixth last year driving the Wood Brothers car. Sadler’s only top 5 this year is at Bristol, where the Wood Brothers last won.
Terry Labonte (12-1) hasn’t won on the two current road courses, but was victorious twice at the old Riverside course. Like Rudd, he has always been tenacious on the roads.
Other possibles: Matt Kenseth (20-1) joins a long line of young drivers who have struggled on road courses. Dale Earnhardt Jr (20-1) draws his largest odds since his rookie year. Kevin Harvick (30/1), Jimmie Johnson (20-1), Ryan Newman (16-1) may come around eventually, but probably not this week.
Kurt Busch (6-1), of all the Young Guns, seems to have that natural ability to compete with the best. He also has the luxury of Crew Chief Jimmy Fennig, who set up Martin’s car during his great run.
TOP 5 AT SONOMA
#1 Ron Fellows 5-1
#31 Robby Gordon 5-1
#24 Jeff Gordon 7-2
#20 Tony Stewart 4-1
#97 Kurt Busch 6-1