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Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Updated: June 25, 12:57 PM ET
Real road course ringers are year-round stars

By John Schwarb
Special to ESPN.com

Geoff Burke/Getty Images

Kyle Busch won both road course events in 2008, including the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in Sonoma, Calif.

Start your engines

For the first time since Daytona, race fans might need a cheat sheet to figure out who's behind the wheel in some cars Sunday at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

No, Michael Waltrip won't be in his No. 55 Toyota -- he's handing it over to Patrick Carpentier. Canadian Ron Fellows will pilot the No. 09 Phoenix Racing entry shared mostly this season by Mike Bliss and Sterling Marlin and, for one glorious day at Talladega, Brad Keselowski. Then there's Brian Simo in the No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Toyota, the car driven eight times this year by Scott Riggs and spread around to Mike Skinner and Carpentier in recent weeks.

Pending qualifying, there could be other unfamiliar names for the first of Sprint Cup's two summer trips to those unusual road courses. With the right turns come the so-called "road course ringers," guys such as Boris Said and Fellows who put food on the table by racing anywhere but ovals.

It's good race preview fodder for NASCAR talking heads and writers (guilty as charged), but once the green flag flies Sunday, the leaderboard more than likely will look like those at an oval race.

Many of today's Cup drivers weren't alive the last time an outsider won a Cup race on a road course: Mark Donohue at Riverside, Calif., in 1973. Fellows has been close with seconds at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1999 and 2004, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule from the so-called ringers.

Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon are safe bets on any oval, but they're also accomplished on the road, with each having won at Infineon in the past four years.

"Whether it's a road course or an oval, I've learned to manage a race more than I have ever before, and to be more patient than I was earlier in my career," said Busch, who also won at the Glen last year. "I'm still going to be aggressive and go for it, at times, but there's a time for that and a time to ride, too.

"I love road racing because it's almost like an off weekend to me. You get a chance to turn right and left and be kind of crazy. You try not to go off course, but it does happen, and you get a chance to rebound as quickly and smoothly as you can. For me, it's just a matter of going out there and relaxing and being as patient as I can be behind the wheel of the car. Sometimes, driving it hard isn't the smoothest way around. You just try your best to get through the corners smoothly without losing your momentum. I was able to learn that in a short time period."

With the way the Chase race continues to stay tight -- fewer than 160 points separate eighth from 16th -- the road courses can't be throwaways for those battling for playoff spots. One can double-dip in points with two good runs at Pocono and Michigan within a two-month span, but there's also a chance for two strikes against you if the road course days are bad.

"Today, it's just a given that you have to perform," said Mark Martin, eighth in points for Hendrick Motorsports and a Sonoma winner in 1998. "There were certain drivers and teams that didn't figure they were that great at a road course, so they just went out and did their deal, but now today all the drivers and teams have to take it very, very seriously because you can't afford to have an off day anywhere on the circuit."

An added twist on the hilly 1.99-mile course will be the new double-file restarts instituted two weeks ago by NASCAR. Many drivers expressed concern about how that will play out on a road course, where passing is at a premium at all times.

"If the fans like spins and unexpected twists and turns in these things, I think they're in for it," Martin said. "From a competitor's standpoint, I don't think it's going to work that well. We only do that once a race, and that's the start of the race when the intensity level is much lower, and it's still a challenge to get up the hill side-by-side, so trying to do it with increased intensity as the race wears on is going to make for increased difficulty for all of us to get through there cleanly. I think there will be some winners in that, but I think there will be some big losers in that."

Who knows how the ringers will do in that department -- it's new territory for them, too.

Front-running

Mark Martin: Man, is this guy living right. Of course, he already was, piloting one of the best rides in the series at age 50 and collecting two wins to land in the heart of the Chase hunt.

Michigan was going to be just another good points day for the No. 5 Hendrick Chevy, but then the seas parted in front of Martin -- with a three-time defending champ and a home-track Roush car running out of fuel on the final lap. Unreal. Living right. But for self-deprecation's sake, Martin told a good story this week about his first trip to Sonoma, in 1989:

"We made a pit stop, and I think it was for gas only, and when I left, I turned to go up the hill and the right rear tire flew off and I spun and turned over," Martin said. "I didn't know if I did that or what, but we weren't changing tires and it turns out the guy ran out and took off all the nuts off the right-rear tire like he was going to change it."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

Standings

You Gotta See This

Drafting

Hamlin

Denny Hamlin: Never in his four-year Cup career had Hamlin endured such lousy back-to-back weeks, crashing out in 36th at Dover and following that with a fried-fuel-pump 38th at Pocono. Just like that, he was 12th in points, halting the momentum of months around the top 10.

No better time for a third-place run at Michigan.

"It is. We definitely had a hard couple of weeks, for sure," said the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who is now 10th in points. "We've got to get back to solid finishes and make sure we solidify our place in the Chase and we don't have to race our way in going into Richmond.

"We had to finish pretty well at Richmond last year to make sure we got in the Chase. And that's just a gut-wrenching feeling you don't want to have to go through."

Off the Pace

Allmendinger

AJ Allmendinger: The Dinger got a great break to start the season, sitting in third place when the Daytona 500 was called for rain. He added a ninth-place finish in the spring at Martinsville, putting him a surprising 15th in points after six races.

Around that time, Richard Petty Motorsports announced it finally had found enough sponsorship to keep Allmendinger in the No. 44 Dodge through the pre-Chase season. Good news for a driver who appeared worthy.

Problem is, there hasn't been a finish better than 17th since, and Sunday at Michigan was a season-worst 39th (off a season-best sixth starting spot), dropping him to 31st in points. Will Allmendinger be around for the last 10 races of the year?

Inside the Numbers

J. Gordon

5: Sonoma wins for Jeff Gordon
22.1: Average Sonoma finish for Robby Gordon (11 races)
20.2: Average finish for Boris Said (nine races)
15.8: Average finish for Elliott Sadler (10 races)
30th, 32nd: Last two starting spots of Sonoma winners
32: Top-10 finishes on road courses for Mark Martin, tops among all drivers
475: Laps led for Jimmie Johnson in past three races