Sonoma Viewer's Guide

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Steve Byrnes

Steve Byrnes is a host and reporter for NASCAR on FOX. A broadcast veteran, he has covered racing for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter.

During Happy Hour, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said it's very easy to get frustrated and start tangling with other drivers instead of running your own race. Drivers have to concentrate on so much, shifting 14 or 15 times a lap so drivers need to stay focused and other drivers eliminate themselves from contention. So many times, the driver hanging around in 10th position wins or at least gets a top-five finish because he's patient and keeps his car on the racetrack. Road racing requires a special mindset and patience. With the Car of Tomorrow, everybody's equal so controlling emotions becomes the most important facet of Sunday's race.

Who to Watch

  • Jeff Gordon: Watching Gordon come from 41st is going to be interesting. Drivers who have had bad starts or skirmishes early in races have come from the back to win. During Happy Hour, Larry McReynolds noted that Ernie Irvan jumped the start in 1992, was sent to the back and won for Morgan-McClure Motorsports. No one has won from further back than 13th at Sonoma, but if anybody can do it, Gordon can. He's got five wins at the track, and his prowess gives him a legitimate shot, even though he's starting on row 21.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya: A lot of people thought it was a foregone conclusion that he would be upfront, but he's starting 32nd.
  • Tony Stewart: With two Sonoma wins, Stewart has a great starting position of fifth, and 13 of 18 races at this track have been won by drivers starting fifth or better.
  • Kurt Busch: Overlooked when it comes to road racing, Busch has an impressive record at Sonoma with three top-five finishes in six starts. He won both road course poles a year ago, but he qualified 14th on Friday.
  • Jamie McMurray: Starting on the pole, McMurray is one of the guys that most people don't think about when it comes to road racing. But he has a positive mindset and liking road racing is important to a driver's success.
  • Ryan Newman: Newman finished second a year ago, and he's got a good record at Infineon with four top-10 finishes in five starts. He won a Busch road-course race at Watkins Glen and could be a big surprise.
  • What to Watch

  • First to fuel, first to finish: The fuel window is about 33 laps, down from 36 laps, and each team wants to be the first to get gas and tires, knowing that you can go the rest of the way. The key is knowing that you can make it. In practice on Saturday, guys ran out of gas on purpose. They wanted to know exactly how far they could push it so they just ran the thing dry because you don't want to have to stop again inside the window. By the window, we mean how many laps can you run to the end on those final few drops of gas to make it.
  • In early, out front: As Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds said during Happy Hour, teams figure that they can make it on two more stops after lap 10. You might see Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson pit at lap 10 and get track position, knowing that the other drivers are going to stop somewhere around lap 33 while you've already made your stop. You're out of sync, and you're ahead of those drivers. They're hoping that the caution falls as they come to pit road so they can be out front when everybody else comes to pit road.
  • Juan's engine gamble?: During practice and qualifying, Juan Pablo Montoya was trying to keep up momentum and speed instead of shifting. By not shifting, is he putting too much strain on the motor, the drive train and the transmission? Jeff and Larry seem to think it could be an issue. But why would Montoya and crew chief Donnie Wingo — the braintrust of the the No. 42 team — gamble, knowing that they're going to have a good finish if they don't tear up their equipment? It's going to be interesting to see if they were just trying something in practice or, if in fact, they can pick up some speed that way. He's going to have to get some track position, too.
  • Speed Mail Steve

    Pit Perspective

    Having a bad pit stop is almost like driving off of the racetrack. If you get off track, you lose so much track position, and it's tough to make your way back to the front. Robby Gordon is an accomplished road racer, but a couple of years ago, the team dropped a tire on the air hose, and their day unraveled. Sonoma is the kind of racetrack where you don't have to be spectacular, you just have to be good. If you're battling to make the Chase for the Nextel Cup, you've got to keep the car on the track, you've got to have solid — not spectacular — pit stops so you don't lose track position. A good day can go down the drain quickly by having either a mistake on the racetrack or a mistake on pit road.

    Finish Line

    If you're road-race specialists Ron Fellows, Marc Goossens, Butch Leitzinger, P.J. Jones, Boris Said or one of the road-race specialists, you can gamble. Terry Labonte almost won on fuel strategy last year in the No. 96 car, coasting to a 3rd-place finish. It was great gamble. The road ringers are racing for wins, not points, and it could change the complexion of the race. If you're Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr. and Carl Edwards, and you want to stay in the Chase, your day is different. Your day is let's not beat ourselves and lets not have a disaster. From that standpoint, you could see something really different.

    NASCAR on FOX and SPEED host and reporter Steve Byrnes has covered racing for more than 20 years.

    Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Robby Gordon, Ron Fellows, Boris Said, P.J. Jones, Jamie McMurray, Marc Goossens, Butch Leitzinger

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