The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will mix things up a bit this weekend, as the series heads to wine country in Sonoma, Calif. for the season's first road course race at Infineon Raceway. The Toyota/SaveMart 350 is one of just two stops on the schedule that requires drivers to turn left and right, adding a twist into the usual fare of oval racing.
Road course races are, by and large, unique creatures. Some Sprint Cup drivers will readily admit they're not good at it, and some teams will even replace their regular drivers for the weekend in favor of "road course ringers." This weekend, for instance, Michael Waltrip will give up his ride in the No. 55 NAPA Toyota for Patrick Carpentier. Phoenix Racing, which normally fields cars on a part-time basis with Sterling Marlin and Brad Keselowski, will bring in Ron Fellows for this weekend's race.
Boris Said and Brian Simo will also be among the road course specialists hoping to compete this weekend.
Even with the road course specialists, look for a Sprint Cup regular to take the checkered flag this weekend. Kyle Busch is the defending race winner (he actually won both road course races last season), but he'll have to contend with the likes of Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose if he wants to defend his title.
Jeff Gordon is the all-time winningest driver at Infineon, taking five checkered flags; his last came in 2006. Robby Gordon won here in 2003, and two of his three career Sprint Cup victories have come on road courses. Stewart, the points leader, has a pair of wins at Infineon, while Montoya picked up his only win in the series at this track two years ago.
Ambrose hasn't won at Infineon, but his road course background will serve him well. Ambrose won the Nationwide Series race at Watkins Glen last season before finishing third in the Sprint Cup race there, and last year he ran well at Infineon before a broken transmission relegated him to a 42nd-place finish.
Jeff Gordon, Stewart and Montoya have the momentum heading into this weekend's event. Gordon finished second last week to gain some ground on Stewart in the points, though Stewart did rack up yet another top-10 finish at Michigan. Montoya has three top-10s in his last four races, and a strong performance at Infineon could be just the spark Montoya needs to vault himself into the Chase.
One thing to look out for is how the new double-file restarts will affect the race. The first two races under the new rule -- Pocono and Michigan -- were wide and gave the drivers a lot of room to run. Sonoma, with its narrow pavement and hilly terrain, does not. How will the drivers handle a restart with, say, 20 laps to go as they dive off into the first couple turns side-by-side? It should be exciting, and an old racing adage -- cautions breed cautions -- springs to mind.
That's assuming, of course, we see full-course cautions. Road courses tend to use local yellows, where there's no passing in that section of the track, but the rest of the course would remain clean and green.
Gotta love road course racing in NASCAR, if for no other reason than it's something different.
For all the attention the road course specialists get, it's always a safe bet to go with a full-time driver in the series. Look for Stewart to pick up his second victory of the season, celebrating in Victory Lane with a bottle of whatever wine's in season.