The Frontstretch: Race Trax: Dodge/Save Mart 350 by Amy Henderson -- Thursday June 22, 2006

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Race Trax: Dodge/Save Mart 350

Amy Henderson · Thursday June 22, 2006


On Track
The Dodge/Save Mart 350 is the sixteenth race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Schedule. The Cup Series will visit the 1.99-mile Infineon Raceway only once in 2006. Infineon (Formerly Sears Point) Raceway has hosted the Nextel Cup Series since 1989, and Ricky Rudd was the first driver to win in Cup competition at the track. The track is a eleven-turn road course located on Sonoma, California. Drivers will race 110 laps for 350 kilometers and the checkered flag. The entry list includes 2005 polesitter Jeff Gordon and race winner Tony Stewart.

48 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the Top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. Qualifying runs consist of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team's time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at Infineon's current layout is 94.325 mph, set by Jeff Gordon in 2005.

The Nextel Cup Series points race is hotly contested so far in 2006. Jimmie Johnson's point lead over second-place Matt Kenseth grew to 74 following Johnson's sixth-place finish in the rain-shortened race at Michigan. Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Mark Martin round out the Top 5. At this point in the season, ten drivers are currently eligible for the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Greg Biffle currently holds onto that tenth spot over eleventh-place Jeff Gordon by a scant eleven points.

What To Expect
Infineon is a different animal from the ovals the Cup circuit has seen so far in 2006. On this road course, racecars must be neutral enough in handling to make both left and right turns. Drivers must also show patience, especially through treacherous turn 11, where many cars are able to use the front bumper to initiate a pass – or a spin. Getting into this – or almost any other turn – too hot will ensure a driver a ride into the tire barrier or through the “kitty litter” traps.

Fuel mileage has come into play at Infineon before, so don't be surprised to see a team take a chance on fuel and ride to the checkers almost on fumes – that strategy has produced more than one winner at the California road course through the years.

Finally, expect to see some different faces in the lineup this weekend. Many teams hire "road course ringers" – drivers whose specialty is road racing – to replace inexperienced racers, especially teams out of the Top 35 in owner points looking for any advantage they can get to work their way back in. Although a road course ringer has yet to win a Cup race, a few always come close; expect this year to be no different. With or without those drivers, you can expect to see some unfamiliar paint schemes among the leaders, and some of the usual suspects struggling to keep up. There is a very real possibility of a points shakeup near the top this week – Jimmie Johnson has one career Top 5 finish at Infineon, while Matt Kenseth's best finish is eleventh.

Who to Watch
Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon have by far the best road-course records among the Cup crowd. Gordon has five wins in Sonoma to Stewart's two, and it might have been six to one if not for a broken transmission for Gordon last year. Either driver can handle the right turns easily – and bounce back from any early miscues that might occur.

Rookie Denny Hamlin has a Busch Series road win this year (Mexico City), and Mark Martin has win at Infineon, too – making him the only driver currently in the top five in Cup points who can claim that. Martin, Gordon, and Stewart are joined by Robby Gordon as the only active drivers with Infineon wins. Speaking of Robby Gordon – he's always a threat to win on a road course. Ron Fellows has also come tantalizingly close, and road specialists Boris Said (who won the pole in 2003) and Scott Pruett will have a shot at Victory Lane if one of the regulars makes a mistake.

Did You Know:

  • Jeff Gordon capped a streak of seven straight road course wins with a victory at Infineon in 1998?

  • That no winner has started further back than thirteenth to win in Sonoma? Just four winners have come from outside the Top 5 on the grid.
  • That Infineon Raceway has been reconfigured three times since the Cup teams began racing there in 1989?

You Don't Say…
“A lot can happen at Sonoma. You’ve got to be patient all day. You get a lot of cautions there and a lot of guys end up beating and banging on each other. I mean, the cars look like they’ve been to a race at Martinsville because it’s a short road course. Save that car for the last 20 laps because that’s the critical time. Do what you have to do to get through the first 70 laps, but those last 20 are the ones when you really have to go, and you need your car to be in one piece to make it happen.” two-time Infineon winner Tony Stewart on race strategy

“I'd never been on the track before we tested the Busch (West) car out there a couple of weeks ago. I had to get some laps in there and we couldn't test in a Cup car so the next logical thing to do was take the Busch car. Now, when I get out there this weekend in a Cup car I'll know my shifting and braking points, and should be comfortable my first laps on the track. I've still got a lot to learn, but at least I'll be familiar with the track and know what I need to do. We just couldn't afford to show up without some sort of test and spend the whole practice session just learning how to get around the place.” rookie Reed Sorenson on making his first trip to Sonoma

“It's not that I don't like racing at road courses, I just like the ovals better. But I like a challenge so that's the exciting part about heading out West. I've pulled off some good finishes at Infineon and Watkins Glen in the past, and I think I can do it again this weekend in my Waste Management Chevrolet." driver Sterling Marlin on road racing

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