- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Although Robby Gordon showed flashes of potential on intermediate-style tracks earlier this season, the veteran's best chance yet this year is at hand. Then again, the same can be said for the likes of Jeff Gordon, who has yet to reach Victory Lane this year.
The Gordons will be two of the drivers in the spotlight at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Jeff Gordon is the leading winner in a stock car at Infineon, and Robby Gordon is always a threat on a road course.
"We've had some good runs this year. Unfortunately, we haven't delivered when it came time to finish the race," Robby Gordon said. "You know, we had good runs, our mile-and-a-half program has been pretty good, but then we have had some mechanical [issues and] we've made some mistakes there and we've learned from those mistakes.
" When you look at it, there's 25 guys that can win on pretty much any given Sunday. Any time you can race inside the top 10, you've got a shot at winning, and [the key's] going to be finishing the race without any problems, and if we do that, we definitely have the potential of winning."
Jeff Gordon always has the potential to win on a road course, but the king of road courses at the moment is Tony Stewart, who won at Sonoma and Watkins Glen a year ago and has won three straight road races. Jeff Gordon's looking to get back into the top 10; Stewart's looking to rebound from an early race accident that ruined his race at Michigan.
For Jeff Gordon, a native of nearby Vallejo, his four wins are only a hint of the success he has had in Sonoma. He has five poles, eight top-fives and nine top-10s while leading 393 laps in 13 starts.
Gordon has led the most laps in six of those 13 starts, including a dominating 92 of 110 laps while winning in 2004. A year ago, he led the opening 32 laps before transmission woes relegated him to 33rd.
"This weekend gives us the opportunity to get some points back," Gordon said. "We need to be sure not to give any away."
Of course, it's not as easy as it used to be. Gordon knows drivers who didn't focus on the two road course events in the past have spent the past few years testing regularly.
"They just wanted to get through them," Gordon said. "Now, every race and every position means so much toward the Chase and the championship. Teams have become smarter about their braking packages, transmissions and car setups."
Then there's Ron Fellows, Scott Pruett and Boris Said, who have become regulars when the Nextel Cup circuit makes its two road course stops each season. Every year, there's talk this will be the time one of the "ringers" breaks through and wins, but it never seems to happen.
Stewart welcomes the challengers no matter where they come from.
"There's such a diverse talent of drivers -- guys that do not like road racing, guys that love road racing, guys who are road-racing specialists that come in who typically don't run the Cup cars very often," he said. "It's fun to see those guys and the top Cup guys at road races go head to head with each other.
"It's kind of like a traveling series that goes to a local track, where the series regulars take on the local talent that knows the ins and the outs of the racetrack. It's neat to see the road course specialists get in our type of cars and race against guys that don't have a chance to race road courses as much."
Stewart said he enjoys Sonoma because it all comes down to handling -- not aerodynamics -- which is a contrast from most weeks of the season.
"It's just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day and having good pit stops and pit strategy and staying out of trouble," he said. "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."
Although many still consider Martin a threat at the road courses, the 1997 Sonoma winner isn't overly optimistic heading into the weekend. He said he's not sure what to expect because the past four or five races there have been a struggle.
"We're just not going through the corners fast enough right now," Martin said. "Maybe we will this year, but the last few years, we haven't been fast enough through the corners, so we didn't get the kind of result that we're used to getting on a road course, so we'll just have to wait and see."
Although there's a lot of talk about drivers who are good at road courses and drivers who simply look lost, Martin said he's proof that even onetime winners at a track can struggle if things aren't perfect.
"Your car makes a lot of difference," he said. "At one time, I looked real good at it, but as of lately, I haven't looked that good at it, so it has a lot to do with what you're driving."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com