Road course races challenge the specialsts

There was a time when a visit to the road courses baffled the NASCAR Cup competitors.

Adjusting to the winding, climbing tracks like Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., was difficult to master and wasn’t the highest among drivers priorities. So-called road-course ringers showed up at these venues and challenged the frontrunners, coming close to wins in their one or two appearances each season.

For fans, road courses were a bit baffling as well, a place where the transitions and few outlets for passes led to some questions about why NASCAR even bothered with these type of events.

None of that is true anymore.

These days, the true road-course ringers are the men piloting these cars on a weekly basis. Drivers spend time prior to the race testing at non-sanctioned road courses – or at Infineon in a different style of car – to prepare for the race.

Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon have become the ones to watch in these events. Newcomers like Marcos Ambrose challenge for wins regularly at the road courses.

And the racing itself?

With the implementation of the double-file restarts among leaders last season, the Sonoma track featured one of the best races of the season. Fans and critics have been silenced. These days, instead of arguing over whether a road course belongs on the NASCAR schedule, the debate rages concerning putting a race at Sonoma or Watkins Glen International in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Times have really changed.

While there are still road-course specialists that enter these races, they aren’t the ones carrying home the trophies. In recent years, they haven’t even been the ones bringing home a top-10 finish very often.

Max Papis was eighth at Watkins Glen last year, but he was running a limited schedule with his team. Boris Said finished ninth at Sonoma in 2007, but again in a season when the No. 60 team was attempting a slate of races. And Ron Fellows stepped into the Hall of Fame Racing entry in 2007 and finished fourth at Watkins Glen.

In recent years, though, it’s been the Cup regulars at the front of the field. Kasey Kahne won at Infineon last season and Stewart at Watkins Glen. Kyle Busch swept the road courses in 2008. In 2007, Montoya and Stewart won the pair of events.

Why the change?

“It just depends, but I think the guys that show up and race week in and week out and are competitive and really good week in and week out have such a good feel for the car that we can make up the difference that maybe we’re not as good as say we went over to their cars,” Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin says. “We probably wouldn’t be as competitive because we don’t have the feel for the edge in their cars. When they come over to us they probably don’t have the feel for the edge. So, it cancels itself out. Even if you have a guy that’s a little bit stronger skill-wise at a road course going to a foreign car sets you back some and I think that’s why you don’t see them dominating.”

That and the increased emphasis the Cup drivers have placed on these types of races.

These days, drivers view road-course racing as another essential part of the schedule. It’s another stepping stone in a top career and a measuring stick against the competition. Gordon has five wins at Infineon and nine total on road courses. Stewart has seven total. Jimmie Johnson has none – and admits that he’s hungering to change that.

“Man, every year, since the start of the No. 48 team, we’ve tested more for road courses than any other specific race track,” Johnson said. “I continue to run the Grand-Am Series when I can to help. I feel like last year, we were close. We tend to qualify well, but fade in the race some and last year was kind of the reverse of that. We qualified decent and had some troubles early in the race but rebounded and came through and ended up fourth."

“I have a lot of confidence but at the same time, after eight years of trying, I’m hopeful we have overturned a stone that we have missed in the past. I don’t think we have forgotten any area or missed something, but we’ll go out and give it a shot and see what we can do and I am ready mentally, physically and we did some testing. I think we found a couple of small things that will bring speed to the cars.”

For those like Johnson, it’s still a challenge to master. For others, it’s a chance to excel on a style of track that seems to work so well for them.

For all, it’s yet another intense race on the schedule, especially with those double-file restarts in the mix.

Those have obviously amped up the competition everywhere.

“As a race car driver when you are in the car, there is stuff you realize like risk versus reward,” Carl Edwards said. “Some of those restarts were just crazy. People are taking chances. I think that is a function of a couple things. The double-file restart puts you in a position there to do that. Also, with the cars, it is so tough to pass that sometimes when they drop the green, guys with less to lose just say ‘screw it’ and they go for it. Everybody else just gives them a wide berth and watches to see how it goes. I can drive down in there and go three-wide and door slam someone just like the next guy. It is a tough balancing act on how hard to go on the restarts. In the end, as long as we get through without wrecking it is exciting for the fans.”

At Sonoma, those restarts just put the field side by side in some of the more technical areas of the track, making those late ones have even more impact as drivers try to hold ground in spaces that don’t offer enough for them to run side by side very well.

Still, for the men who generally run well on these courses, this weekend is an opportunity to show that it is those who race in these cars every week who have the edge on this track.

“I think a race like Sonoma this weekend, I’ll be breathing a little easier knowing that it’s my forte,” says Ambrose, a veteran of these types of races. “It’s what I’ve grown up doing. I should have as good a chance of any running at the front."

“Anytime I’ve been there I’ve run at the front both years I’ve attempted the race. We’ve done a lot of practice, lot of research on the car, we’ve done a lot of development. Fingers crossed, it’s going to work out.”