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Start Your EnginesIf you're starting to get a little touch of midseason NASCAR malaise, watching mostly the same 43 cars go in circles, this week is your savior. Ahh, Sonoma, Calif. Wine country. Abundant sunshine. Right-hand turns. Infineon Raceway is the first of two road courses on the Sprint Cup schedule, a 1.99-mile route with not only lefts and rights, but ups and downs. It's a welcome respite for the drivers from their weekly oval world. "It's nice because it kind of breaks up the monotony of the season. We do the same thing every week and it's nice to have two road-course races thrown in the mix that give us a chance to do something a little bit off-center for all of us," said Tony Stewart, 11th in points for Joe Gibbs Racing and a two-time winner at Sonoma. Actually, not all the Cup regulars will be on the road. Sonoma and the August race in Watkins Glen, N.Y., always bring out a number of ringers who specialize in road-course racing in non-NASCAR series. Ron Fellows, a three-time winner at Sonoma in the American Le Mans Series, will take Regan Smith's place in the No. 01 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet, making his seventh Cup start at the track. He finished 15th last year. California native Scott Pruett will drive Reed Sorenson's No. 41 Chip Ganassi Racing Dodge, with an eye on a good enough finish to get Sorenson some breathing room in the owners' points. Pruett, the current points leader in the Rolex Sports Car Series, finished third at Sonoma in 2003 in a Ganassi Dodge. Of course, it wouldn't be a NASCAR road race without Boris Said, making his first Cup appearance since failing to qualify for the Daytona 500. Last month he raced in Germany at the 24 Hours of Nurburgring, and this weekend he'll hope to run Sonoma for the ninth time. And that's just three of the expected half-dozen road aces. Odds are most will be competitive, but none will win. Not since Mark Donohue at Riverside in 1973, driving a Penske AMC Matador, has a ringer stepped in and beat the Cup crowd. Some of the best on ovals are equally adept on the road courses, none more so than Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon, a nine-time road winner including five at Sonoma. He last won in 2004 and 2006, so perhaps '08 makes sense. "It's a special weekend for us," said Gordon, ninth in points but still looking for his first win of the year. "We've had a lot of success at Sonoma. So, from the team's perspective, this is a race we are really looking forward to." Ditto Juan Pablo Montoya, the defending champion. The former Formula One driver certainly carried the road-course ringer label before ever sitting in a Cup car, then delivered in his first shot at Sonoma. "Last year, I felt a ton of pressure heading into Infineon because everyone expected me to run well and win because of my background," Montoya said. "This year I don't feel any pressure. We are focused on making our race cars and our race team better. Our goal is to run well, and if we have a shot at the win, obviously we are going to take it." Cup regulars always do at Sonoma, beating a few different faces along the road.
Rocket ManDale Earnhardt Jr.: We can't resist a moment of conspiracy-theorizing here. NASCAR gets broadsided with a $225 million harassment lawsuit from a former official. The drivers are called in by league brass and told to make like the Partridge Family -- "c'mon get hap-pyyyyy!" -- a meeting that essentially validated the concerns that maybe there is something wrong with this new car and the way it races. In the wake of all this, who would you expect to win the next race? Jamie McMurray? OK, conspiracy talk closed. In reality, Junior's win wasn't fishy if you've been paying attention all year. The Hendrick Motorsports newbie has been outstanding, with an average finish of 10.5 that blows away his best seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Throw away the crashes at California and Dover, and the No. 88 hasn't been outside the top 15. All that was missing was a win, and Michigan shouldn't be the last one in '08. John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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