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SACRAMENTO BEE



Published: Fri, June 24, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



SACRAMENTO BEE

SONOMA, CALIF. -- For guys used to turning left all day, Infineon Raceway represents a challenge.

"I know it will sound pretty remedial or stupid, but the toughest thing about Sonoma is literally just staying on the road," Nextel Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson said of the twisting, 10-turn layout. "If you get one tire off [the track], you will hit something."

But drivers who have a knack for road racing can make up some ground in the Cup points chase with a good performance Sunday in the Dodge/Save Mart 350, NASCAR's annual visit to Northern California.

Specialists such as Boris Said and Scott Pruett have a distinct advantage on the winding course they consider their home track.

"I always feel confident I could run top five here," Said noted during recent testing at Infineon. "My whole career has been built on road racing."

Other Cup drivers -- such as four-time Save Mart winner Jeff Gordon and 2003 winner Robby Gordon -- relish the track's unusual configuration.

"Enjoying the road courses is something that only a handful of drivers can say," said driver Jeff Green, who admits he's in that minority. "It's not something that we're used to doing every week."

Out of its 36-race schedule, the Nextel Cup includes only two road races -- Sonoma and Aug. 14 at New York's Watkins Glen.

"It really tests the driver," said Robby Gordon, who swept both Cup road races in 2003. "One mistake at Sonoma, and it could cost you a few laps. There used to only be a few guys who were good on the road course, but that's changed. There's a lot more competition now."

Added Greg Biffle: "We are so much more involved as drivers because of all the different variables with all the turns and everything else. I really like the road courses, even though it might not show in Sonoma."

Biffle, second in the Cup standings after a win in last week's Batman Begins 400 in Michigan, finished eighth at Infineon last year.

Because they may have an edge in Sonoma, road-course lovers are gambling that Sunday's race can significantly boost their points and catapult them in the standings.

"This is a place where we have a shot to win," said Jamie McMurray, second at Infineon to Jeff Gordon in 2004 and 11th in the 2005 standings. "We ran well here last year, but Jeff had the perfect weekend."

With an inconsistent season, Gordon could use another perfect weekend. He sits in 12th place, six points below the cutoff line that determines the championship contenders for the final 10 races. The four-time Cup champion has 11 races to make up that gap.

Sonoma's serpentine course definitely has its own learning curve.

"Unless you're out there, you can't really understand how difficult it is," said Johnson, a Hendrick Motorsports teammate of Jeff Gordon. "Our cars are really heavy with a lot of horsepower. They don't brake that well, and they move around a lot. That makes it really tough at Sonoma."

Johnson knows that firsthand. In three tries, his best finish at Infineon was fifth last year after starting 34th. In 2003, he started 37th and finished 17th.

As in 2004, Johnson arrives in Sonoma atop the Cup standings, looking to improve on his lead. But it won't be easy.

"It's such a tough track," Johnson said. "The last two times, I made some really bad mistakes in qualifying, and that really set us back. I had to work my way through the pack all day.

"It comes down to experience," he added, "the more you have, the better."




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