Brickyard Stars Looking For Road To Victory At Sonoma
With the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard just five weeks away, the legends of the Brickyard and their fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors take a West Coast road trip to Sonoma Raceway, site of the first road course race of the season Sunday in the Save Mart 350. And some of the greatest names and most successful drivers in this race are also among the best at the Brickyard, led by four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon, who has a record five Sonoma wins.
Gordon backed that up during Friday’s qualifications with a second-place effort. Australia’s Marcos Ambrose won the pole for the second week in a row.
“I thought it was a really good lap, but you’ve got to give credit where credit is due: Marcos laid down a heck of a lap,” Gordon said. “We came up just a little bit short. I knew that was going to be a tough lap to beat, but I’m very pleased with that lap.
“The car has just been really solid ever since we unloaded. I’m pretty excited. There are some guys that are going to be tough to beat. Man, our car is just driving so good, and I’m having fun out there. It’s been awhile since we qualified like this and had a day like this, so we will see what happens tomorrow. Our chances are good right now.”
And Gordon has reason to be confident that his winless streak will end Sunday. In addition to his five Cup wins, he has 12 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 19 career starts at Sonoma. Since he finished 33rd in 2005, Gordon has finished, in order, first, seventh, third, ninth, fifth and second in the next six Sonoma contests.
"(Sonoma) is very challenging, to me; it's a track where you have to be really precise and patient,” Gordon said. “At Watkins Glen, you have to attack really hard and be aggressive. I feel like Sonoma is the exact opposite of that, and I think that suits me a little bit better. While we haven't had the same success we once had on road courses, I look forward to those events. The road courses bring a different set of challenges, and those challenges are fun. Challenges that I always look forward to as a driver.
“It would be great to go to victory lane on Sunday. The competition has gotten better. Guys have done their homework and got their cars better, and guys like Juan Pablo (Montoya) and (AJ) Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, these are just guys that have road-racing backgrounds and they really have stepped up the game now that they’re in solid teams. Those are the guys that I feel like we’ve really been having to watch these last couple years.”
Three-time Brickyard winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is another Sonoma success story. He won this race in 2010, and that lone victory is one of three top-five and five top-10 finishes in 10 starts. He starts third Sunday.
“A good qualifying effort is very important because it presents an opportunity for you to play the fuel strategy game,” Johnson said. “The race has really been decided by how many times you pit. If you can limit yourself to two stops, I think that is the race winning strategy. It’s really tough to win with three stops. I think it all starts in qualifying.
“It was a decent lap time. I left some speed on the track in a few areas. We’ve really been struggling on comfort in the car today since we unloaded. It was a bit of a shock because we had an amazing test session. Granted, it was at a different track (laughs), but we really felt like we had something really good going on. Clearly the speed is in the car, but the comfort is not quite there.
“We just worked on qualifying trim today, and it was on edge the whole lap. So I hope that we can get some rear grip in the car and get things to calm down for a race because I don’t want to drive 110 laps like the way it drove today (laughs again). But we’ve got some good ideas and some good direction. Jeff (Gordon) has had great comfort in his car, so we’re going to look at the things the No. 24 is doing. It’s nice to have the speed. If we can just build some comfort into it, we’ll be really good.”
Two-time Brickyard winner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is a two-time Sonoma winner. Those victories are included in his four top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 13 starts. But Stewart qualified 24th Friday and will need some creative strategy and fearless driving to make his way to the front.
“I just like the road courses,” Stewart said before his qualification effort. “I’ve always liked Sonoma. It’s really a driver’s track. It’s tough to make your car drive perfect all day. You can have a really good car, but it’s going to slide around and you’re going to struggle for grip, and that’s what makes it so fun. You have to do the work behind the steering wheel.”
Ryan Newman, from South Bend, Ind., has never won at the Brickyard or at Sonoma but will start 10th Sunday.
“I like road courses,” Newman said. “They are difficult to pass on. It seems like there are only a couple of passing zones. I’ve always said the more corners there are without passing zones, the more opportunities there are to fall behind the guy who’s in front of the guy who’s in front of you. Road courses are unique in their own right. I wish we had a third one because I think they are fun. I enjoy hustling the race car around the track, and Sonoma’s a good road course. Personally, I enjoy Watkins Glen a bit more, but I enjoy them both and I look forward to racing out there. It’s a big track-position race, and fuel mileage has become a big part of the racing there. But it’s the same for everybody.
“In road-course racing, the driver, in my mind, can make up more than he can at an oval just being able to hustle a car. You have the added mannerism; I guess you could say, of braking. When you brake at short tracks, it’s not the same as when you brake and downshift. So, you have to be a smooth downshifter, you have to be a good braker. Obviously, you have to turn right. There are extra characteristics, I guess, that you have to include at road courses that you don’t have to include at ovals. That separates the men from the boys, typically.”
Juan Pablo Montoya finished second in his first trip to the Brickyard in NASCAR in 2007 but that pales in comparison to his first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2000 when he dominated the Indianapolis 500 and became a rookie winner of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Montoya starts 12th Sunday at Sonoma, where he drove to his first Cup victory.
“I have a lot of memories from Sonoma -- good and bad,” Montoya said. “Obviously, I got my first Cup win there five years ago but ever since then we’ve struggled, which is surprising considering how well we run at Watkins Glen. We tested at VIR a couple of months back, and I was really happy with the car, so hopefully we figured something out coming into the race this weekend. You’re at that point in the season where you need to step things up. It’s really important for us to run well at Sonoma and have a strong finish for the Target team.”
Kevin Harvick drove to victory at the Brickyard in 2003 and qualified 26th Friday. He has never won at Sonoma but has three top-five and four top-10 victories in 11 starts at the winding, twisting road course.
“I love road racing,” Harvick said. “Sonoma is obviously very close to my hometown in Bakersfield, Calif., so you get a lot of family and friends that come out, but just the change of pace is something that I enjoy. I grew up racing go-karts on road courses, so going to Sonoma and getting to race one of the two road courses we have on the schedule during the year should be fun. I think we can win there. We’ve just got to put it all together. We’ve run well enough to win there a few times, but we just haven’t been able to break through and make it happen. We were able to get a win at Auto Club Speedway a couple of years ago, so I know that it’s fun to win in your home state. It would be good if we could get a Sonoma win behind us.”
Paul Menard is the defending Brickyard winner but would like to find a measure of success at Sonoma. He qualified a loose race car on Friday and starts 23rd.
“I enjoy road-course racing a lot,” Menard said. “I wish we had a couple more, honestly, to break up the oval racing a little bit. Road courses are a lot of fun. It’s a lot different from what we do week to week. You turn left, turn right, downshift, up shift and strategy is a huge deal. It’s a lot of fun to drive.
“We tested at Virginia International Raceway a couple of weeks ago. Because every track is different, you have to test theories instead of focusing on the car setup with spring and shock changes. It’s probably more beneficial for the driver to get back into the groove of things.”
But the man of the week is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won his first race in 143 attempts with a decisive victory last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. He qualified 19th Friday but was still the center of attention after his big win.
“It’s been a good week,” Earnhardt said. “The team is excited about our win to finally get that out of the way and real happy with how the season is going. I’m looking forward to the rest of the summer before the Chase just learn all we can learn and put ourselves in the best position we can during the Chase to compete, and that is about it. I’m looking forward to the race this weekend. I enjoy coming here. I haven’t got the best track record at this track, but it’s still a fun place.
“I think that win helps us a lot. As far as for us personally to feel like we can contend and compete that we went out there and won a race. I don’t really know how it makes everybody else feel outside of our team, but for us, yeah, I think it makes us even hungrier. It’s good to know we can do it. It’s good to know we got it done, and we want to go do it again.”