Drivers to watch
Check out a short list of favorites for Sunday's Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway:
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: After seven straight weeks atop the Nextel Cup standings, he dropped seven points behind Jimmie Johnson after finishing 21st at Michigan International Speedway; has been in the top 10 in the standings for 48 straight races, which is the second-longest current streak on the circuit; in eight career starts at Infineon and Watkins Glen -- NASCAR's other road course -- Earnhardt has an average finish of 21.75 and has never been among the top 10.
Jeff Gordon: The California native won three straight races here from 1998-2000; finished second at Sonoma in 2001 and again last year, when he was just 0.553 seconds behind Robby Gordon; enters off disappointment at Michigan International Speedway, where he was the pole sitter and led the first 78 laps before his engine faltered on lap 88; "You never blow up when you're running 30th with no problems at Charlotte," Gordon said. "It's always when you're leading or running up front and you've got a shot at the lead. We certainly had a great effort going today. You can't control those things."
Robby Gordon: The versatile Gordon won both NASCAR road-course races in 2003 for his only victories of the season; the Orange County native survived a challenge from four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon to take the checkered flag here last year; led 81 laps here last year; started fifth at Michigan International Speedway, but made contact with Brendan Gaughan's Dodge Intrepid early in the race, causing damage to both front fenders; his car was repaired, but Gordon never recovered and finished 33rd.
Kevin Harvick: Wore a Matt Kenseth shirt during the DHL 400 after he and the 2003 Winston Cup Champion each were fined $25,000 each and placed on probation until August 11 for a bumping incident during the Pocono 500 on June 13; finished 17th in the DHL 400 and fell one spot in the standings to 10th; finished third in this race last year in his third career start at Sonoma; "Sonoma is one of those places where track position is more important than anywhere else we go," Harvick said. "Basically, how it works is you work the race from back to front based on how many laps you can run. As soon as you can pit, you come in and pit, take your tires and stay out on the racetrack ahead of the rest of the field."; has finished 53 consecutive races, which is the longest active streak on the series.
Jimmie Johnson: Born in El Cajon, California, Johnson finished fourth in the DHL 400 at Michigan and moved seven points in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead in the Nextel Cup standings; it is only the second time Johnson has been atop the standings, with the other being during his rookie season of 2002 when he moved into first after the Protection One 400 at Kansas Speedway; has seven top-five finishes in his last eight races; is the only driver to lead at least one lap in 12 of the 15 points races this season; has made two starts at Sonoma, finishing 35th in 2002 and 17th last year.
Kasey Kahne: The rookie again will seek his first Nextel Cup victory after finishing second for the fourth time this season in the DHL 400; had an impressive race as he started 34th and was pursuing leader Ryan Newman when a caution flag came out on the final lap as P.J. Jones spun out. "If it would have went all the way (without the yellow flag) to the start-finish line, he would have beat me by a car-length," Kahne said of Newman. "They had us covered today."
Matt Kenseth: After back-to-back finishes outside the top 20, the 2003 Winston Cup champion finished eighth in the DHL 400 and remains in third place in the standings; has not finished among the top 10 in four career starts at Sonoma, but last year produced his best results here by starting fourth and finishing 14th; "We've done a lot better as a team at road course races since I changed my mental approach to these type places," Kenseth said. "I used to hate going to them and I think it affected our results. When we buckled down and took a focused approach to them, I had my two best road course finishes last year, including a top-10 at Watkins Glen in August. I'm glad we tested a road course earlier this year."
Bobby Labonte: Continued his climb in the standings as he finished eighth at Michigan and vaulted to spots to fourth, which is his highest of the season; the 2000 Winston Cup champion has top-10 finishes in six of his last eight races; has five top-10 finishes in 11 career starts at Infineon Raceway, with three of those efforts coming in his last four starts; his best result at Sonoma was fourth in 1998 and 2000.
Ryan Newman: Finally picked up his first win of 2004 after leading the Winston Cup Series with eight victories last year; overcame a piece of stuck paper on the grille of his radiator, a one-lap deficit, a record-tying nine caution flags and a late charge by rookie Kasey Kahne to record his 10th career win and second at Michigan; after falling from sixth to 10th in a three-race span, Newman moved up to ninth after the win; has top-10 finishes in both of his starts at Sonoma.
Elliott Sadler: Was fifth at Michigan for his second top-five showing in the last four races; the result inched him up one slot in the standings to seventh and he remains one of just four drivers to be among the top 10 for the entire season; has made five career starts at Sonoma with one top-10 finish, a sixth place in 2002.
Tony Stewart: The 1997 Indy Racing League champion has never finished lower than 15th in five career starts at Sonoma; won a Bud Pole here in 2002, when he finished second to Ricky Rudd and was victorious in 2001; has been fifth in the standings in four of the last five weeks; has seven top-10 finishes this season; was penalized for leaving a drivers meeting early at Michigan and sent to the back of the field and finished 24th.
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