Which drivers can excel at Infineon?
Take an inside look at the top drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Infineon Raceway.
99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 1st, same as last week, leads the standings by 20 points.
INFINEON RECORD: Edwards might be an "Oval Ace" but he is certainly not the "King of Road" as NASCAR heads to the first of two road-course races this year. He has never finished in the top five and has two top-10 finishes in six starts. He was 29th last year. He has finished out of the top 10 in his last two starts at the Sonoma road course.
LOOKING AHEAD: Edwards will be spending plenty of time in the cockpit – the cockpit of an airplane, that is, as he will be competing in the Nationwide Series race in Wisconsin at Road America and the Cup race at Infineon. "The most demanding weekend of the year is this one," he said. "We compete on two tough road courses that are thousands of miles apart. Billy Johnson will practice and set up the Mustang in Wisconsin Friday while I practice and qualify the Fusion in California, then we will travel to Road America to race Saturday, then back to Infineon for Sunday's race. I feel that Saturday's race will help me prepare for Sunday and will make up for the lost practice in the Sprint Cup car. There's a lot of pride in winning on a road course, and a win at either event would be huge."
LOOKING BACK: Finished fifth at Michigan after leading twice for 30 laps. "This is a great racetrack and track position is so important," he said. "Sadly, downforce is such a big factor in these cars and I am really hoping that NASCAR will take the opportunity in 2013 to take downforce away so the fans can see the guys race cars and not race downforce. That would be cool. All the cars are very close. So let's say all of the cars are a tenth apart and you are behind two or three cars, your car is two-tenths of a second slow. You can't make up. I am not whining. Denny (Hamlin) earned this win and those are the rules we are under. Track position was huge and I just wish it wasn't like that."
ETC.: Crew chief Bob Osborne has built a brand-new car for Infineon – RK-758. "Our road-course program has come a long way since 2004," Osborne said. "Carl is coming into his own as a driver and our ability to lead laps and get strong finishes is evidence of that. His two wins in the Nationwide Series in Montreal and Road America are a credit to his road-racing skills. We are bringing a new car that tested well at Road Atlanta, so I feel confident that we'll be competitive at Sonoma."
29 KEVIN HARVICK, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 2nd, a two-position improvement in one race, trails Edwards by 20 points.
INFINEON RECORD: Another top driver without a victory at Infineon, Harvick has three top-five and three top-10 finishes in 10th starts. One of those was last year when he finished third to break a streak of two finishes worse than 29th.
LOOKING AHEAD: Being from nearby Bakersfield, Calif., Harvick has plenty of home-state success when he gets to Sonoma. "Oh, we definitely have a lot of friends and people that come to support us at (Infineon), so it's fun to see that," Harvick said. "Road racing to me is a lot of fun. I think I ran my first race at Sonoma in the Southwest Tour car in 1995. So it's always fun to go back to a racetrack where you've had those experiences so early in your career. It's a fun place to race and I really enjoy going out there. There's really nowhere good to pass. That's the problem. That's why it becomes so rough, because (the track's) so narrow and the small amount of areas where there are decent passing zones lead into really, really slow corners and that's why you see as much contact as you do. It is way more like a short-track race than anywhere else and probably as rough a race as you'll see anywhere on the circuit."
LOOKING BACK: Coming off a 14th-place finish at Michigan. He led once for one lap. "We just got really loose at the end and I should have just packed her down a little bit and wound up getting the car into the fence," Harvick said. "But they still did a good job of fixing it and we did what we could with it at the end and were able to come home okay. But it was my fault. I drove it right into the fence. I knew I needed to back down and just didn't."
ETC.: When it comes to races that are determined by fuel mileage the best car doesn't always win. "I think you just kind of have to react as to how the race is playing out and where you're at for that particular day as far as your fuel mileage and how competitive your car is on that particular day and you just have to make those decisions well before the last run," Harvick said. "You have to put yourself in position with two or three runs to go in the race and have it on your mind. So you can kind of see the way the race is starting to play out and where everything is at. It's interesting."
88 DALE EARNHARDT JR., Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 3rd, same as last week, 27 points out of the lead and seven points behind second place.
INFINEON RECORD: Has never finished in the top 10 at Infineon but has a trio of 11th-place finishes including last year.
LOOKING AHEAD: Earnhardt was short in his expectation of racing at Infineon this week. "I like Sonoma but it's tough," Earnhardt said. "(Crew chief) Steve (Letarte) and Jeff (Gordon), there is a lot of talent there on road courses to lean on. I'm pretty confident with the setup we've got for this weekend. I've got some of the best road-course racers as teammates, so we should be pretty good."
LOOKING BACK: Started 15th and finished 21st, leading one time for one lap. "The defining moment probably was getting run into the wall by Mark (Martin)," Earnhardt said of his teammate. "We had fixed the car, we were moving forward and we were doing pretty well at that point, but, you can't do nothing about getting run over or getting run into the wall. I perceived that he didn't know I was on (the) outside. He came up there, he knew I was up there, but, he was just running hard. If the tables were turned, I would have been smarter and give him plenty (more) room than he did me. He is older than me, been racing forever and knows a lot more than I'll ever get or he has forgot more stuff than I'll never know. Still, I take better care of people than that."
ETC.: When the time comes that Earnhardt gets back to Victory Lane for the first time since June 2008, he was asked if that will be the next step in his resurgence. "We need to win several races I think to be legitimate and it's not easy," he said. "One win really doesn't make a season, we would definitely like to win several races and I would feel like we are where we need to be potential-wise. We're not now. We're getting there, we're doing good but we still know we can do better. We still know we had races where we let things get away from us. We've been very, very lucky this year that when we've slipped up, we've had fortune and luck to pick us up ... and get us a good finish. … I have always felt like you celebrate every win like it could be your last. You never know what happens or what could happen in this sport so I always have torn down Victory Lane every time we've been there."
18 KYLE BUSCH, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 4th, a one-position gain in one week, 29 points behind Edwards and two points out of third place.
INFINEON RECORD: Drove to victory in 2008 for his lone win and only top-five and one of two top-10 finishes in six starts. He was 39th last year and 22nd in 2009.
LOOKING AHEAD: Busch looks forward to turning left and right as well as hitting the brakes this weekend. "The road courses are fun," he said. "For me, I enjoy it. It's pretty cool to go out there and race the road courses. You get to turn right, turn left and everything, so it's fun. Sonoma is more technical just because there are more turns and it's a little bit slower. You have to concentrate on getting off the corner a little bit and have good forward bite. Sonoma, in our M&M's Pretzel Toyota, is going to be fun, going out there and seeing what these cars have this year. It will be a fun race, though. I always look forward to going up there and challenging the road course."
LOOKING BACK: Started 24th but pedaled his way all the way up to third. Busch led three times for 59 laps. It was his fourth top-10 finish in 13 races at MIS. "It started out a little bit rough, but I had a great car, man," Busch said. "I can't thank these guys enough and Joe Gibbs Racing. They brought me a great piece today. This Camry was fun to drive, man. It was fast. We led much of the race and had a great time out there. If it would've went green the rest of the way we may have had a shot at winning the thing, but had a couple of cautions and it caught Denny (Hamlin) up and caught the rest of the guys up. It was a great race -- good racing there and I can't say congrats enough to the 11 team (Hamlin). They did a great job."
ETC.: Busch expressed the role his father, Tom, has played on his career. "My dad was a big inspiration in my career -- both my brother's and my career. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him and his passion for motorsports and racing and him doing everything he did possible for us to have the opportunity to have race cars to go to the racetrack with, and to buy tires and to buy fuel and to buy everything it took. And, then for him and mom to both make that sacrifice for us. He calls me and he tells me things. He always asks me about different situations about race weekends like, 'Hey, well why did you guys pit here?' Or 'Why didn't you take just two tires there?' So, he's always giving me advice about how maybe we could've done things differently."
48 JIMMIE JOHNSON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 5th, a drop of three positions in one race, 29 points out of the Cup lead.
INFINEON RECORD: The defending winner of this race, it's his only victory, one of three top-five and four top-10 finishes in nine starts at this road course. He was fourth in 2009.
LOOKING AHEAD: Although he has won a race on a road course, Johnson sees plenty of room for improvement on the non-oval tracks. "Long story short, I'm very confident now on road courses and move forward and am a threat. I still think I can be better though. … I've been to the Bondurant School to learn – we've tested like crazy and I've run some Nationwide races just all trying to get reps and trying to let me search around and see what I need to do."
LOOKING BACK: Finished one lap down in 27th place at Michigan. "Yeah, tough day," he said. "We got turned around early and ground the sway bar off the right front and we lost a couple laps from that and we were just kind of in a hole at that point and couldn't get caught back up. It's just part of it."
ETC.: Johnson's No. 48 team could be the last great sports dynasty with five straight championships. "I've never really thought of it along those lines," he said. "The fact that we have done it means that it can be done again. It's not an easy feat: five in a row has not happened all that often or frequent and I think there was the Canadiens; there also was a college basketball team if I remember correctly. It doesn't happen often so it is possible and anything is possible for that matter. I feel that we've done something in a very difficult period of NASCAR history with the competition as close as it is week in and week out. The fact that year after year it's been a different driver and you look at the names of who we've raced with for these championships – Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin – these are amazing drivers with amazing teams. I'm very proud of what we've done and I do feel like we have a very good chance at a sixth and our team is building and going in the right direction right now through the summer months here. I think we'll be very competitive once September starts."
17 MATT KENSETH, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 6th, a one-position gain in one race, 41 points out of first place in the standings.
INFINEON RECORD: Has just one top-10 finish in 11 starts – an eighth in '08, He was 30th last year and 18th in 2009.
LOOKING AHEAD: It's another track position race for the Cup drivers this week on the road course at Infineon. "Track position is really important when we go to road courses like Sonoma," Kenseth said. "Qualifying becomes a really big focus for the team since passing is a lot more difficult due to the limited space on the track. Sonoma is kind of a difficult track with the two-wide restarts and how narrow it is. It has gotten to be one of the more exciting races to watch when you see the two-wide restarts and all the crazy stuff happening as drivers are fighting for space on the track. There are a lot of people two- and three-wide at a track that is really just a single groove everywhere. A lot of stuff can happen, which can be exciting for the fans."
LOOKING BACK: Coming off a second-place finish at Michigan where he led three times for 17 laps. It was his 15th top-10 finish in 24 races at Michigan and his eighth top-10 in 2011. "I just couldn't quite get Denny Hamlin," Kenseth said. "After restarts we were kind of slow and tight in the middle which isn't a good thing to be in a short shootout. We had a great car in the long run though. I tried what I could to get around him but I slipped on the restart. I just needed more laps to get it going."
ETC.: Kenseth gets another brand-new Roush Fenway chassis – RK-757. "We're bringing a brand-new car this weekend with us to Sonoma," crew chief Jimmy Fennig said. "We took it to Road Atlanta last month just to shake the car down on a road course. The keys to this weekend are going to be staying on the track and fuel mileage. Drivers that race smart at the road courses usually tend to stay out of trouble all day, and quick pit stops seem to matter a little more at a road course where it's difficult to pass and advance your way through the field."
22 KURT BUSCH, Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 7th, a drop of one position in one race, 41 points out of the Cup lead.
INFINEON RECORD: Looking for his first Infineon win but has three top-five and three top-10 finishes in 10 starts. He was 32nd last year continuing a dubious streak that includes four straight races out of the top 15 at this road course.
LOOKING AHEAD: Busch has won on the short tracks and the superspeedways but never on a road course. "I really do feel like we're closing in on getting that first Cup road-course win," Busch said. "They don't give you anything out there; you have to scratch and claw and earn everything you get. I've seen our team continue to make progress and if we continue to get ourselves in the position to win, we're bound to capitalize on it sooner or later. Hopefully, we can continue that progress at Sonoma (Infineon) on Sunday and finally win us one of these things. Patience is certainly a huge part of it."
LOOKING BACK: Won the pole but finished 11th. He led twice for nine laps. "It was a really up-and-down day for us," Busch said. "It's always tough when you earn a pole position and can't take advantage of it during the race. Our Dodge Charger was just too inconsistent today to contend for a race win. We were a solid top-10 race car, but just couldn't get (it) dialed in enough to run with the leaders. We ran 198 laps inside the top 10, finished 11th after getting nudged out on that last restart. It was really a seesaw day for us. It seemed like our car would be good for the first five laps of a green-flag run, and then once the track would rubber-in, we would run tight. Our first lap was awesome; the last 199 were a challenge."
ETC.: Busch believes the new points system has changed the approach for some drivers. "I think wins add insurance in your pocket," he said. "You feel real good about your position. Like Kevin Harvick, there's no way he's going to miss the Chase. He's got three wins. That's how I would feel if I were him. If I was Juan Pablo Montoya with zero wins, 14th in points, I've got to go win Sonoma. I've got to go try and get Watkins Glen, those are my two best chances. The same thing for (Marcos) Ambrose who I believe is in the top 20 in points. Then you have a Michigan race that could be a fuel-mileage race. Then Kentucky, who knows what's going to happen there? I think Kentucky will play into the hands of guys like Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Carl Edwards, guys who have run Nationwide there over the years. I think those are the guys that will run strong there and they'll be tough to beat."
39 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 8th, a two-position improvement in one race, 76 points out of first place and 35 behind seventh-place.
INFINEON RECORD: Looking for his first Infineon win but has two top-five and five top-10 finishes in nine starts. He was 16th last year and 17th in 2009. He has finished outside of the top 10 in his last two starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Newman believes the road courses are physically demanding to a driver. "I've always said it's much more physical going to the road courses inside the race car and I guess at times much more risk of having that driver control and not getting out of control and getting off the racetrack," Newman said. "Here, you get off the racetrack and you're in the fence. There, you get off the racetrack and you're in sand or you're in the sticks, I guess you could say and that can totally change your day. Something as simple as getting a tire off course in qualifying can change your entire weekend. I look forward to going out there (Sonoma). I love the challenge, I love the road course."
LOOKING BACK: Started 13th and finished sixth at Michigan. He led one time for three laps. "It was a good finish for us," he said. "After our practice on Friday we really didn't have much to look forward to but the guys did a good job of giving me a better Chevrolet and we fought back hard. We struggled a couple pit stops and we took two tires at the end and the guys nailed it and I got some decent track position and was able to hold on. So a good finish for us that we typically don't have at Michigan and I look forward to the road course next week."
ETC.: Prior to going to Michigan, Newman spent a day at the GM Proving Grounds. "It was pretty neat from a technical standpoint to see where GM is at their proving grounds," he said. "Their proving ground in Milford was amazing. The size of it and the mileage of testing tracks and courses and surfaces that they have working on ride control and stability and braking and things like that was pretty amazing. Then to get to drive the Camaro, the super-charged Camaro was pretty wild out on their skid pad. They've got a 67-acre skid pad and half of it has been repaved. We got to work on the grippy half, so talking about the racetrack; I guess it's kind of similar. … It's pretty neat to see their facilities for the first time and understand that they're a big part of what has been very successful in the NASCAR Chevrolet program."
11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 9th, a three-position jump in one race, 77 points out of the lead and only one point out of eighth place.
INFINEON RECORD: Has no wins, one top-five and two top-10 finishes in five Infineon starts. He was 34th last year but fifth in 2009.
LOOKING AHEAD: Now that he has finally scored a win in 2011 Hamlin is hoping momentum will continue through the next few races. "Obviously in this position, it puts us in the top 10, and hopefully works towards our goal of being in the top five by the time we get to Richmond," he said. "We just started so far back in points, it's going to take a long time to get to that point. I feel like over the last six to seven weeks, we've been as good as anyone. It feels good to get a win after sneaking up on everyone. When we go to these racetracks that we won at before, everyone expects us to win. We expect ourselves to win. We just had little bugs that kept us from doing that."
LOOKING BACK: Drove to his first victory of the season, leading the final eight laps after starting 10th. It was his 17th victory in 202 Cup starts and his sixth top-10 in 2011. His last victory came at Texas 16 races ago. It was also the second time he has won the June race at Michigan and his seventh top 10 in 11 races at the 2-mile oval. "We finished, that's the thing," Hamlin said. "We got it done. I'm happy for all this team. I think everyone knows that we've been strong and today we didn't look as strong as what we normally do here, but we got it working there at the end. … This is the point in the season where we really need to start hitting our stride and hopefully we got another good 10 weeks before the Chase starts."
ETC.: Hamlin explained his thoughts on the new points system as the season approaches the halfway point. "It's so hard to tell because usually when you knew you were 160 [points] back, you need to have three solid weeks over someone who runs 12th to 15th every week," he said. "This time, I'm still a little confused on how much you need to gain each week. But I really try not to look at the points at this point because it's just there's nothing I can do. All I can do is try to get the best finish I can every week. It doesn't matter what the system is."
33 CLINT BOWYER, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 10th, same as last race, 77 points behind Edwards at the top of the standings.
INFINEON RECORD: Another non-winner at Infineon he has two top-five and three top-10 finishes in five starts. He was 31st last year but eighth the year before that.
LOOKING AHEAD: Bowyer is one of many drivers that have active feet inside his race car during a road-course race. "Yeah, I won't let them put a camera on my feet (while road racing) because it looks like I am break-dancing down there," Bowyer said. "I am out of control. You know it's a lot of fun to do that and its very technical racetrack. A lot of fun, it really is with a lot of hills and blind corners and the dive bombs getting into the last corner over there and there are just so many things that go into getting a good finish there. Running good there is one thing, but getting a good finish there is a whole different ballgame."
LOOKING BACK: Started 27th and raced his way to an eighth-place finish.
ETC.: Bowyer offered his opinions on the decision to repave Michigan International Speedway. "The sad thing is that it's time to repave a few of them and it's just come due," he said. "It's the only thing you can do when its time. You have got to repave it. These tracks do age well and as they age the racing gets better and better and Goodyear does a good job of bringing tires that create a good racing environment on the surface whichever the case may be whether it's got a lot of grip and its brand new and fresh or slippery and slimy. But like I said, it's been a good racetrack over the years and it's been a lot of fun to race on and it's going to provide good racing no matter what the surface is."
14 TONY STEWART, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 11th, one point out of the top 10. Lost two spots last week to drop out of the top 10 for the first time in seven weeks.
INFINEON RECORD: Two wins and eight top-10 finishes in 12 starts. Will be shooting for his fifth straight top-10 finish and sixth in the last seven races.
LOOKING AHEAD: Stewart said he really enjoys going to Sonoma and the California wine country. "There is something about Sonoma that is awesome," said Stewart. "It is a NASCAR weekend, but it gets us out of our box and it is almost half a vacation and half a race weekend for us. All the teams and crew guys, the drivers, the girlfriends and wives, everybody has a good time out there. I have always taken a lot of pride in hopefully trying to be good at a lot of different things, and I am proud of the fact (that he has seven career road-course victories)."
LOOKING BACK: Stewart rallied in the final 100 laps to finish seventh. It was his 17th top-10 finish in 25 starts at Michigan. "We weren't very good in the beginning, but we kept working at it, kept making changes and got a lot better there at the end," said Stewart. "I'm very proud of Darian (Grubb, crew chief) and all the Office Depot/Mobile 1 guys. They did an awesome job. At the end, we just needed track position to get further forward."
ETC.: Stewart and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton swapped rides last week at the other road course on the NASCAR schedule: Watkins Glen. Hamilton got to drive Stewart's stock car, while Stewart drove one of Hamilton's McLaren Mercedes MP4-23s. "As a competitor you want to go out and find the limit, but at the same time, you realize that if you make a mistake, the penalty for that mistake is probably going to be pretty large," said Stewart. "So you may back it off a little bit just to enjoy the experience more."
24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 12th, 17 points out of the top 10. Lost one position last week.
INFINEON RECORD: Holds all the track records: most wins (5), most poles (5), most top five's (11) and most top 10's (14) in 18 starts. Will be seeking his sixth straight top-10 finish and eighth in the last nine races.
LOOKING AHEAD: Despite his impressive record at Infineon, Gordon admits "we've struggled on the road courses recently, and that's not something we're accustomed to. It's not something we like, so we tested at Mid-Ohio and have been working hard to make improvement. I'm hoping that test will get us closer to being more competitive this weekend."
LOOKING BACK: It was a long and disappointing afternoon for Gordon as he battled an ill-handling race car all afternoon and never contended for a top-10 finish. Instead, he had to be content with a 17th-place finish just a week after his impressive win at Pocono. "It was just a long weekend," said Gordon. "We just never got a handle on this race car."
ETC.: Gordon said "there's no doubt this is probably my favorite weekend of racing, regardless of what happens on the track. It's a magical time for me with my daughter's (Ella) birthday party (on Saturday, she turned 4 on June 20), seeing my biological father and other family members, and seeing friends I went to elementary school with and raced with out here (California). It's just a special weekend, and it puts me in an incredibly positive frame of mind going into the race on Sunday.
16 GREG BIFFLE, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 13th, 30 points out of the top 10. Gained one spot last week.
INFINEON RECORD: Finished seventh a year ago for his third top-10 finish in eight starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Biffle said he likes road course racing. "It breaks up the season a little," adds Biffle. "We have had a top-five finish at Infineon and I think it's reasonable to shoot for a top-10 finish this weekend. There are a few drivers in this series who have a lot of road-course experience and if I can just hold my own with them and get out of there with a top-10 or top-five finish, I think that would be a reasonable expectation."
LOOKING BACK: Biffle led five times for a race-high 68 laps, but an ill-timed caution flag with 40 laps to go ended his victory aspirations. Biffle was running third when he made a green-flag pit stop on lap 154 of the scheduled 200. He was one of the first of the leaders to pit. And when the yellow flag came out a few laps later he was caught a lap down. Biffle did receive the Lucky Dog award to get back on the lead lap, but was the last car (25th) on the lead lap. "We had a great car," said Biffle, who ended up 15th. "The pit stops were great. Everybody did a great job, but we just got caught by that yellow flag."
ETC.: Crew chief Greg Erwin said the team is "taking a new car to Infineon this weekend. Our road-course package in 2010 had good speed and we've made some improvements since then to better the program. Qualifying is extremely important as track position is key there. It is very difficult to come from the back to win a road-course race."
5 MARK MARTIN, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 14th, 37 points out of the top 10. Gained one spot last week.
INFINEON RECORD: One win and 13 top-10 finishes in 20 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Martin points out "road-course races are taken more and more seriously every year. I mean, look at the race teams who have tested on a road course in the past month or so. You can't just say 'it's only two races (a year), so we won't concentrate on them.' With how competitive this sport is, there are no races you can pay less attention to any others. I remember when I started; no one took road-course races seriously. It's just not that way today."
LOOKING BACK: Martin finished ninth at Michigan for his 30th top-10 finish in 50 starts at the 2-mile facility. He now is the all-time top-10 leader at Michigan. He and Bill Elliott had been tied at the top with 29 apiece. "Our car was much better today," said Martin. "We had a pretty good run. I think we can take it and kind of build on that going forward. It was a good day for us after what we have been having happen."
ETC.: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was quite upset with teammate Martin after Martin pinched Earnhardt into the wall with only nine laps left in the race. The two were battling for a top-10 finish at the time. Earnhardt finally cooled down after the two talked after the race. "I don't have a history of having problems (with other drivers)," said Martin after he explained to Earnhardt what caused the contact. "I don't think I have one now. I think we will get it sorted out. I feel like I give everybody on the racetrack respect. I made a mistake."
42 JUAN PABLO MONTOYA, Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
WHERE HE STANDS: 15th, 46 points out of the top 10. Lost two spots last week.
INFINEON RECORD: One win and four top-10 finishes in four starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Montoya knows how important this weekend is if he wants to make the Chase. This will be one of his best chances to visit Victory Lane since he scored his first Cup win at Sonoma in 2007. But "it's weird because we run really good at Watkins Glen and have struggled at Sonoma lately," said Montoya. "We can finish top 10, top five pretty easy there, but I think last year at Watkins Glen (when he won his second Cup race) we learned a lot and made the car a lot better. We are in a really good position right now, so a good finish is important."
LOOKING BACK: It was a very long day for Montoya as he battled an extremely ill-handling race car for most of the afternoon before running out of fuel and getting hit from behind by rookie Andy Lally. Montoya was able to recover from the accident to finish 30th at Michigan. "We had a bad day," said Montoya. "We just couldn't find the right balance with the handling of the car. It's frustrating and then to run out of fuel towards the end really added to the whole day. I'm hoping this is the last of our bad luck."
ETC.: Montoya is expected to sign a new contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in the next few weeks. Several other teams have talked with Montoya about trying to get him to move elsewhere in 2012. But he has indicated repeatedly he wants to remain where he is and things have now gotten to the point in the negotiations where Montoya is "real close" to re-signing with Ganassi.
27 PAUL MENARD, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 16th, 53 points out of the top 10. Gained three spots last week.
INFINEON RECORD: His best finish in three starts is 21st.
LOOKING AHEAD: Menard said he feels "pretty comfortable on a road course" even though his record on them isn't too impressive. "All these guys are so damn good, they're all good on road courses," adds Menard. "It's no different than an oval race really. We'll just put our best foot forward. I'm confident that we'll have a good car out there."
LOOKING BACK: Menard ran in the top 10 for most of the day as he finished a season-best fourth at Michigan. "We've had a rough month, no doubt about that," said Menard. "The team needed a good run. We've had a fast car for the most part, just been struggling to put together a full race. The guys gave me some good pit stops. I was still a bit too tight at the end but we definitely needed a good run and we got one today."
ETC.: Menard feels Friday may be the most important day of the weekend if he is to have a good day this Sunday. "If things go good on Friday, that makes Saturday and Sunday a lot easier," said Menard. "Sonoma is a whole different animal. We got us a top five last week, but going to a road course the next week is totally different."
43 AJ ALLMENDINGER, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 17th, 53 points out of the top 10. Gained one spot last week.
INFINEON RECORD: One top-10 finish in three starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Allmendinger said his plan this weekend is real simple. "I am going to follow Marcos (Ambrose, his teammate) around," said a laughing Allmendinger. "I'm going to try to do that most of the race and then pass him on the last lap, hopefully. In all seriousness, we'll have to get the Best Buy Ford Fusion turning fairly good in the corner, but the biggest thing is you have to have forward drive off all the way through the esses (s-curves)."
LOOKING BACK: After finishing 13th at Michigan, Allmendinger said "that run was a credit to the Ford team in general. We struggled really bad on Friday and we were really bad in qualifying (he started 26th). We looked at some notes and went off the other Ford cars, a different direction than we had been before and the car was great all day."
ETC.: Allmendinger said he is not worrying about points "right now. We have to get better. We aren't a Chase team right now obviously, you want to score every point you can, but we need to get better before we worry about making the Chase. Today (at Michigan) was a big day. We were never really good here before and we were a top-five car all day today. Thirteenth sucks in the end, but I am proud of what we did today."
6 DAVID RAGAN, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 18th, 60 points out of the top 10. Lost two spots last week.
INFINEON RECORD: Has never finished better than 24th in four starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Ragan said he has worked "really hard at getting better" at the Sonoma road course. "I feel as if I'm better prepared now than I have been in the last couple years. I spent some time out at Sonoma last week practicing and trying to get familiar with the course."
LOOKING BACK: After being the fastest in the first practice session, Ragan had high hopes for the weekend. But things did not go as well as he had envisioned as he ended up 20th at Michigan. "Right from the get-go, nothing was really going our way," said Ragan. "Our UPS Ford was a top-10 car, but after the first trip into the pits, the 88 (Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) and the 51 (Landon Cassill) got together and ran us up the right track, and we had to come back in and fix our fender. We went back out in the high 30s. We had the speed, but we didn't catch the cautions right. It's just very frustrating. Everything that could go wrong did."
ETC.: Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer feels "road-course racing is all about staying on the road, taking care of your transmission and getting good fuel mileage. David tested a Late Model out there last week which went well and I think it will really help our efforts this weekend."
4 KASEY KAHNE, Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 19th, 69 points out of the top 10. Lost two spots last week.
INFINEON RECORD: Kahne has finished first and fourth in the last two races on the road course. He has won two of the last three poles.
LOOKING AHEAD: Kahne feels it is "tough to pinpoint the toughest part of racing at Sonoma. I think that every part of it is hard. There is a lot going on there and we don't race that type of track often. You have to really be on your game and you need the whole team to be on point, too. One little mistake there and you will lose a lot."
LOOKING BACK: The crew called Kahne to pit road one lap too late as he ran out of gas and had to coast down pit road with less than 50 laps to go. He was running in the top five at the time. Kahne had trouble refiring the car after the pit stop and fell two laps off the pace. He was never able to get the laps back as he finished a disappointing 28th on a day "we had an awesome car," said Kahne.
ETC.: Kahne has no worries about his future as he is signed to run for Hendrick Motorsports for the next four years. But the rest of the team knows it needs to run well in the next six to eight weeks to boost the chances of the organization finding investors to keep the team alive beyond the 2011 season, given Monday's news that Red Bull Racing's corporate parent does not plan to return to NASCAR next year as either a sponsor or team owner. "We're very enthused and excited about some of the prospects and things we have got going on," said general manager Jay Frye. "We've got to finish the season strong, and we've got some good tracks coming up."
56 MARTIN TRUEX JR., Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 20th, 79 points out of the top 10.
INFINEON RECORD: His best finish in five starts is 15th.
LOOKING AHEAD: Truex hopes this is the weekend he gets his first top-10 finish at Sonoma. "I feel we are getting better and better at road-course racing," said Truex. "The problem is that so many guys are really good road racers. So you have to make sure you stay on the course all day and not make any mistakes. If we do that, we have a shot (at a top-10 finish)."
LOOKING BACK: Truex was challenging for a top-10 spot when he ran into major problems on his green-flag pit stop on lap 120 of the 200-lap event. During the stop, a lug nut fell off and Truex was forced to pit a second time. The extra stop put him a lap down and he was never able to get it back as he finished 26th. "It was another day where we had a much better car than where we finished," said Truex.
ETC.: There are only 11 races left before the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins, and Truex knows he is one of the drivers that must win a race between now and then if he is to make the Chase. "We have run well enough to win a race or two this season, but our luck hasn't been too good," said Truex. "But I know we can do it if we have a day where everything goes right."
Meet the 2012 HOF class
Richie Evans changed racing with his dominance.
Dale Inman's decision-making skills put him atop all crew chiefs.
Waltrip backed his talk with titles, wins.
Wood impacted NASCAR first as an driver, and now as owner.
If there was a finish line, Cale Yarborough was going to win.
9 MARCOS AMBORSE, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 21st, 86 points out of the top 10.
INFINEON RECORD: Finished sixth and third in the last two races.
LOOKING AHEAD: Ambrose feels the "key to success at Sonoma is managing expectations. Everyone knows we are going to go there and be competitive. There is a lot of pressure on us, but for me, it's about forgetting everything that is going on around the track and just worrying about the actual race itself. It's going to be important to save tires, save brakes, look after the fenders and run fast to get to the front of the field to control the race."
LOOKING BACK: Ambrose had to overcome two ill-timed caution flags to finish 23rd at Michigan. "Just a bad luck day," said Ambrose. "Twice we pitted and the caution would come out a couple of laps later. It was just one of those days when things didn't go our way."
ETC.: Ambrose will have some extra incentive this weekend as he seeks his first Sprint Cup victory. "This weekend is going to be really special for my Stanley team and I as we'll be racing for an extra $1 million to be donated to the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals if I win," said Ambrose, who will visit one of the hospitals on Thursday. "We are going to have four kids for the Children's Research and Development Hospital in Oakland serve as honorary crew members for the entire race weekend."
2 BRAD KESELOWSKI, Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 22nd, 91 points out of the top 10. Only 12 points out of the top 20. With one win needs to be in the top 20 to qualify for one of the wild-card spots in the Chase.
INFINEON RECORD: Finished 35th in his Sonoma debut a year ago.
LOOKING AHEAD: Keselowski believes "the two road courses (Infineon and Watkins Glen) could really shake the standings up and determine who makes the Chase. Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya are in front of me in points and both could easily win on these road courses, along with AJ Allmendinger. That could completely ruin any shot that I would have unless I win another race."
LOOKING BACK: Keselowski kept bouncing off the wall until finally a cut tire sent him hard into the wall on lap 84 of the Michigan race to bring out the third caution flag of the day. Keselowski rallied in the final 100 laps to finish 25th. "Obviously we had a poor qualifying effort that forced us to start at the rear of the field (41st)," said Keselowski. "Once the green-flag flew, our Miller Lite Dodge was a rocket. I was just trying to move around on the racetrack, trying to get us to where we needed to be. I just pushed too hard and hit the wall."
ETC.: Crew chief Paul Wolfe said "in the short amount of time that Brad and I have worked together, going back to the Nationwide Series last year, I've seen him make great strides in his road-course racing. He's very much a student of the game and he consistently looks for ways to improve."
20 JOEY LOGANO, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 23rd, 96 points out of the top 10.
INFINEON RECORD: Has finished 19th and 33rd in his two starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Logano admits "if I ran better (at Infineon Raceway), I would really enjoy it. I have fun trying and I usually get decent speed, but I tend to get caught up in something. It seems like these cars on a road course are like a demolition derby. Staying out of trouble is a really big deal on road courses."
LOOKING BACK: Logano had to start last after changing engines during the second practice session on Friday. He was able to move into the top 20 before the race was 30 laps old, but Logano was never able to challenge for a top-10 finish as he battled a loose-handling race car for most of the day. He ended up 18th.
ETC.: Logano said his trip to Joplin, Mo., a couple of weeks ago was "one of the coolest things I have done in my career and to be part of how Home Depot gives back to communities was awesome. To go there and see the destruction, it was so much worse than I imagined and to be able to make a difference in someone's life like that." Logano and members of his team help rebuild a home.
83 BRIAN VICKERS, Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 24th, 107 points out of the top 10. Gained two spots last week.
INFINEON RECORD: Has two 14th-place finishes in five starts. Won the pole for the 2009 event.
LOOKING AHEAD: Vickers call Infineon Raceway "very technical. The elevation changes, you've got blind corners and a lack of run-off room. They all make Infineon a difficult course to get around. We had a really strong run going in 2009, and after a year away (for heart and blood clot problems), I'm excited and ready to build upon what we learned."
LOOKING BACK: Vickers finished 10th at Michigan for his eight top-10 finish in 13 starts at the track. But he felt he should have finished a lot higher. "The caution that came out as we were on pit road pretty much screwed us," said Vickers. "Now we were racing at the back of the field, trying to get track position again when we should've been racing the leaders. It was a good points day, even though we should have finished higher."
ETC.: After reports came out on Monday that the team may shut down after the 2011 season, general manager Jay Frye issued a statement that said "The Red Bull Racing Team is currently seeking outside investors as we evaluate our next steps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. We are not at liberty to comment on details while negotiations are under way. Red Bull fully supports NASCAR and will continue its investment in America's premier form of motorsports for the remainder of the 2011 season. The team's focus will not waiver as we fight for victories and a position in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup."
31 JEFF BURTON, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 25th, 110 points out of the top 10.
INFINEON RECORD: Five top-10 finishes in 17 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Burton said he is a driver "who tries not to run into people. I do, from time to time, but I try not to. I'll bet you the last five or six races at Infineon I've gotten wrecked late in the race running top 10 and got wrecked by people who just didn't care. I think some of those wrecks have been unbelievably ridiculous. So many cars are running the same speed that in order to pass somebody, you're forced to get really aggressive and there's only two places to pass. There's been a lot of contact the last few years, a lot."
LOOKING BACK: Transmission problems late in the race ended any hopes Burton had of finishing in the top 15. Instead, he had to be content with a 24th-place finish at Michigan. "Today was another tough break for the CAT Racing team," said Burton. "Unfortunately we had transmission issues that resulted in a lot of lost spots." The shifter got stuck in fourth gear.
ETC.: Despite having one of the worst seasons of his highly-successful career, Burton is not ready to give up on the year. "What's silly is, with the format we have this year, we're still not out of it," said Burton. "We can still win the championship." … Burton is still seeking his first top-10 finish of the season and sits in 25th place in the standings. "We win a race and our whole world changes," adds Burton. "We win a race and everything's different." … The final two spots in this year's Chase will be filled by the two drivers with the most wins that are not in the top 10 but are inside the top 20 in the standings. Of the drivers outside the top 10, only Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith have won at least one race so far in 2011 and, of those, only Gordon is inside the top 20.