Thursday, June 19, 2008

Toyota/Save Mart 350 preview

Each week Ridebuyer delves deep into the misunderstood, oft terrifying, world of American saloon-car racing known as NASCAR.

This week: The Toyota/Save Mart 350
TV: TNT 3:30pm EST (Sunday)
Location: Infineon Raceway (Sonoma, CA)
Distance: 350 k/110 laps
2007 winner: J. Montoya

*Right turns, wine country and the mentality of a San Franciscan*

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has a 36-race schedule. Of those events, only two are contested on non-oval tracks (this race and the Watkins Glen event in August). The series has an aversion to road racing as, - and, this is for you math types- only 5% of the schedule consists of tracks where left and right turns are needed. The rest of the schedule is the typical mix of short and intermediate ovals with the infrequent super speedway added to the fray. Neither road race event finds itself in the "Chase for the Cup." Road course's inclusion in the schedule is really nothing more than a hokey afterthought. The reason? 3000+ pound stock cars, on narrow tires, utilizing circa-1972 suspension technology, motoring around road courses is only occasionally fun (like twice a season, occasionally). Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. hates road races and everybody loves that guy, so he must be right. Right? Road racing is a different beast than oval racing. Road racing takes a different skill set. The be quick on a road course, you must be agile and show some finesse. Well, a stock car is about as agile as Pacman (excuse me, Adam) Jones at Scores. It would be easier to push a wheelbarrow full of overweight housewives around an autocross course than drive a stock car at Infineon or The Glen.

While road racing is certainly not the forte of either NASCAR cars or most drivers, the on-track product is damn entertaining. It's like watching an NFL-team play baseball. It is not pretty, nor textbook in any sense of the term, but you can't help becoming enthralled. Watching professionals struggle at, well, their professions, is high entertainment.

Infineon (formally known as Sears Point) is located in Sonoma, which is the epicenter of the American-wine world. (The irony of perhaps the biggest beer-swilling, unrefined sport in the world invading wine and cheese country is noted. Here.) As counter intuitive as it seems, a few big names on the NASCAR scene are involved in the wine world. Jeff Gordon has his own wine label. Gordon Wine options include a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, whatever the hell that means. Richard Childress has a full blown wine empire with his own winery, extensive bottle options, and impressive collection of jams and jellies ($8.95 for the options to the left). Though more known for his exploits in the Indy Car and Formula 1 worlds, 1967 Daytona 500 winner Mario Andretti has quite the wine conglomerate himself. Like any self-respecting (we mean stereotypical) Italian-American, Mario has a full list of wine-pasta pairings for visitors to his Napa vineyards. We recommend the the Estate Reserve Chardonnay with a full bowl of macaroni noodle-o's. Bada. Bing.

A loafer-lightening hike south from Infineon Raceway will take you to the stronghold of flamboyance and shitty sports teams known as San Francisco. Race fans choosing to stay in San Fran. could be in for a rude, alternative awakening should they venture too far from the safety of their Residence Inn. Three wrong turns will place you in the heart of The Castro, or the biggest culture shock for any NASCAR fan since the Rock Hudson rumors were confirmed. When not at the track, we advise to stay locked in your hotel rooms, or be prepared to see an incredibly clean neighborhood where everyone treats you with respect and kindness. The horror.

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*What to know:

Track position: On a road course you can make an unscheduled pit stop under green and not drop a lap. The only thing you've done is blow it on track position which is damn near impossible to make up without a caution flag to bring you back to the end of the pack. Without a yellow, a driver could wind up spending his day circulating Infineon all by his lonesome, unable to catch the pack, but the pack can't catch him either to lap him. Track position is king, don't expect anyone to give it up for four tires late in the race. You just can't make the time lost up.

Qualify to win: You can't win this race without starting near the front. The crack team at Jayski told us that the winner of this event has started from inside the top-10 78% of the time. That would equate to 15 of 19 Infineon races. Sure, one year ago Juan Montoya won this event from the 32rd starting position, but that was a fuel mileage thing. He should have run out of gas with about three laps to go, but didn't. It was weird. That is called an outlier. This year's winner will come from inside the top-10 qualifiers.

Roadies: Whenever NASCAR does the road course thing, a host of "road racing aces" are employed to show their stuff. Often times, a team will make a one-off appearance at these events with the hopes their hot shoe can pull off a miracle and beat the likes of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. This never happens. So don't expect Brian Simo to win on Sunday. The other side of deal is when a full time team sits their normal driver for the weekend and brings in an "ace" to fill his spot. These teams can win. They have the experience of racing every weekend with the Car of Tomorrow and their crew should be polished in the pits. Add a fuckin' quick driver to that equation and good things can happen. Example (though the Wood Brother's race almost every weekend in Cup, you get the point): Marcos Ambros takes over the Wood Brothers Racing #21 this weekend. Good team + good driver= good results.

*Who to watch:

Jeff Gordon: Five wins in 15 starts at Infineon. Again, for the math types, he wins 1/3 of the races he starts in Sonoma. Damn. His last win there came in 2006, and last year he went from starting 41st to finish seventh. Gordon has always been a strong road racer with a career average finish of 11th on the twisty tracks. He starts fifth this weekend at has 3/1 odds in Vegas to win.

Kasey Kahne: Historically awful at road courses. Like, really bad. He has never had a top-10 on a road course, yet somehow is starting from the pole this weekend. Momentum is something that Kahne has. Two wins this season, with two straight top-three runs to boot. Dodge appears to be fast at Sonoma, with four of the top-six starters all grabbing life by the horns. If Kahne doesn't toss the thing into the sand trap on lap-one, he should be a factor.

Robby Gordon: The full time owner-driver also happens to be a road racing ace. He starts eighth on Sunday, in his sponsor-less Dodge. He won this race in 2003 and has nine top-five finishes in Cup cars on road courses. He will either win the race, or wreck. Either one will be fun to watch.

*Dark Horse:

Marcos Ambrose: This will be Ambrose's first start in the Sprint Cup Series. He is the highest qualified rookie (starts seventh), and is one of the best road racers in the world. The Tasmanian was a legend in the Australian V8 SuperCar Series before he ever thought of NASCAR. Aside from being road race-stud, his car is officially named the Little Debbie Honey Buns Ford. Awesome.

*For those heading to the track:

Pertinent tailgating information is here. Be warned: No alcohol may be brought into the facility. Beer is available for purchase at several locations throughout the raceway. Hopefully you knew this before heading to the track. Holy shit, that's lame. Since you can't byo, maybe you should pass on booze altogether (?!) and hit up the karting facility at Infineon. You can pretend to be Tony Stewart, only without the beard or gut. Or with the beard and gut, you know, depending on body size and lifestyle choices.
Next race: Lenox Industrial Tools 301 (Loudon, NH). It's good the team's transport drivers only have a quick drive from northern California to New Hampshire for next week.

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