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Sonoma throws curve to usual ovals

Jun 22, 2004 5:51 AM

This week’s NASCAR Nextel Cup race in the wine country of Sonoma, CA offers a multitude of diverse opinions from the fans, drivers, and teams alike. Most opinions are not on the fence either. They either really enjoy the road races or dislike them immensely.

Road course cars are basically suited only for the road courses. For the teams that don’t do well at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, they’ll be the first to complain about the cost of having several made specifically for two races out of 36.

As for the teams that do well, naturally they love the break in the oval racing action. Many of these successful drivers were very good go-kart drivers at a young age. Jeff Gordon (4-1), Robby Gordon (7-2), and Tony Stewart (9-2) all were racing anything they could find young and that included road courses.

Today, they are the most successful of the NASCAR drivers on the roads and the favorites to win this week. Robby Gordon swept the roads last season, Stewart won a road race in ”˜01 and ”˜02, and Jeff Gordon is arguably the best NASCAR road racing driver ever.

For many of the teams that do poorly in the road events, they attempt to gain an edge by sitting their regular driver and bringing in a hired assassin. This year there are three prominent hired guns driving for some pretty good teams. These drivers are naturals on the roads and are regular hot shots driving sports cars on road courses all over the world.

My favorite hired gun, Ron Fellows, has prior commitments to Corvette and will not be participating this week, but will make it for the next road race at Watkins Glen. Two teams are adding another car to accommodate the hired assassin’s skills this week and another is sitting their regular driver.

Jim Inglebright (20-1) will be driving Richard Childress’ No. 30 AOL Chevy this week. Inglebright is a master of the track and has won three of the last four at Sonoma in the NASCAR elite division, Southwest series.

Chip Ganassi will commission Scott Pruett (18-1) to drive one of his cars without sitting any of his regulars. Pruett’s only success in NASCAR has been on the road courses. In every other facet of his career, Pruett has been extremely successful whether it was winning races in the CART series or three titles in the Trans-Am series.

Boris Said (18-1) will be hired to drive along side Joe Nemechek (55-1) this week. Said ran two full seasons in the Craftsman Truck series and had one win at, you guessed it, the road course in Sonoma. Last season in this race he set the track record and sat on the pole, ending up with his best Cup performance finishing sixth. Look for Said to have another good day and push for a top 5 finish.

Two-time Sonoma winner Rusty Wallace (7-1) had a test session three weeks ago along with four other drivers and set the unofficial track record with a fast lap of 1 minute 15 seconds, a full second faster than the official track record set by Said last season.

The track is faster because it was newly repaved, but nevertheless, Wallace was still much faster than the second best time during that test session held by last year’s race winner Robby Gordon. Prior to Mark Martin’s (6-1) and Jeff Gordon’s road course success, Rusty Wallace was the king of the roads winning at all of them including the old Riverside track.

Wallace hasn’t won on the roads since winning at Sonoma in ”˜96, but based on his like for the roads and leading a track record eight different Sonoma races, he’ll be one to take a hard look at to win this week. His odds will surely vary from as low as 7-1 all the way to 20-1.

Mark Martin (7-1) has four career road course wins, one at Sonoma and three at Watkins Glen. That number could be doubled if it weren’t for the road dominance of Jeff Gordon from ”˜97 to ”˜01 where Gordon won seven road races with many times Martin finishing second behind him. Like Wallace, Martin has a win on the season and may feel a bit rejuvenated, free spirited, and relaxed without the pressure of having not won in a few years.

The three favorites of Gordon, Gordon, and Stewart will be hard to beat this week. Even though the results of these races are almost a foregone conclusion, there definitely is more competition at the top level then there used to be.

When Gordon was winning all those road races, you would be lucky if odds on him were 2-1 or better. Because he’s been in a bit of a slump, not having won in the last four road races, his value has never been greater.

Like Darrell Waltrip, Geoffrey Bodine, Ernie Irvan, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, and Mark Martin before Gordon, now it appears that the likes of Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart may be on their way to a few wins.

The top four in points will all have odds greater than 22-1. The new points leader Jimmie Johnson (25-1) did have a nice fourth place finish at Watkins Glen last year, but has been very average to bad at Sonoma. Dale Earnhardt Jr (22-1) has had success on the roads when in the Busch Series, but in the Cup Series his average finish in his eight races is just over 21, with his best Sonoma Finish at 11.

A few outside contenders could be Kevin Harvick (8-1), Ricky Rudd (25-1), and Casey Mears (25-1). Kasey Kahne (22-1) has a diverse racing background that should make up for not racing on the NASCAR circuit last year.

As for the hired assassins, I’d look for Inglebright to have the most success because he’ll be with Childress on an established Cup team.