Right state of mind key

Updated: June 25, 2004, 6:50 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Every year the Nextel Cup circuit hits the road courses and every year we're reminded that many NASCAR racers hate turning right and left.

This year, though, is a little different.

The stakes are higher, so all the holdouts are willing to take a new approach. Call it mind games.

"If a guy goes there with the attitude that they're not going to enjoy it no matter what, then that's probably what'll happen," advises all-purpose racer Tony Stewart. "Until they get the mindset that they're going to enjoy running a road course and that they're going to have fun with it, they'll have a strike against them."

That strike could be a bruising blow this year, where the first 26 races decide who gets to race for the championship. Two of those 26 are road course venues, including this weekend's excursion to Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

Though this makes the task a little tougher for the guys who were raised racing ovals, some of them like the challenge. "I think they do add to the sport in that they require drivers to be better rounded as competitors," Dale Jarrett said. "Just like the rest of the tracks we visit they play a key role in the season as a whole and in the championship picture."

Those who haven't always agreed with that are still trying to remain positive about the experience. After all, racers are a superstitious bunch. If someone says you can will your way to success at Sonoma, these guys will give it a shot.

"We've done a lot better as a team at road course races since I changed my mental approach to these type of places," defending Cup champ Matt 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."

As obvious at it seems, sometimes it's hard for folks to understand what a wrench it throws into a race having to right. Jeff Green, for one, believes it could be the biggest challenge a Cup driver faces on the track.

"It's a tough deal," he said. "We just don't spend 34 weeks out of the year racing on them. We only have two road courses on the schedule, and they are two completely different tracks."

But one thing many drivers do appreciate is the fact that road racing gets rid of a lot of the aero gripe fans hear about at other tracks.

"Road racing does bring the driver out a bit more," said Robby Gordon, who won both road course Cup races last year. "There are a lot of things that also come into play. You have to have a pit crew that can get you in and out of the pits without losing five positions. You have to get good fuel mileage, manage your tires and maintain track position.

"The fastest car doesn't always win the race. It is about being on top of your game across the board to win the race."

And being on top of your game at the road courses ain't easy. Rookie Scott Riggs was suprised at how easy it is to miss you mark on a road course. Whereas a driver may have a foot-wide cushion at other tracks, a few inches off can spell disaster at road courses.

Kevin Harvick says that's only one of the many things a driver has to keep in mind when navigating these snaky confines.

"There's a lot more to do," he said. "You have to shift, stop, shift, gas it and slide. The hardest handling characteristic is to get your car to get forward bite up off the corner because you are coming off a low gear and there are a lot of hills and off-camber corners.

"It's kind of like trying to find a balance between taking care of your stuff and driving the heck out of it. It's definitely different from our weekly routine."

Jarrett's crew chief Mike Ford agrees.

"Road racing is completely different from anything we do at other tracks," he said. "It starts with the way the body is put on the chassis. We take different equipment to compensate at road courses. Drivers shift gears. They're turning left and right, braking hard and accelerating hard. A lot of the corners are extremely tight and the car has to rotate harder than any oval track.

"We race those tracks only twice a year so you like to get those cars on the racetrack, shake them down and get the cob webs out of the crew and get them thinking left and right along with the driver."

And if the team can get to thinking clearly and finish high, it could change a team's view of road courses completely.

"Success on a road course breeds success," Stewart says. "If you have some success on a road course you're probably going to like racing there. If you don't have success on a road course, it's probably a style of racing you're not going to like."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

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