SONOMA, Calif. – Twice a year when the Sprint Cup Series visits a road course, the so-called road ringers get a ton of press. But for what?
None have ever won a race at either Infineon Raceway or Watkins Glen International, and between the two highest-profile road ringers in Sunday's race – Ron Fellows and Boris Said – they have just 10 top-10 finishes in 31 tries and zero top fives at Infineon.
This isn't so much an indictment of their ability, but rather a demonstration of how difficult it is to hop in a strange car and compete against drivers who race them every weekend.
And if that's not enough, whatever advantages the likes of Fellows and Said – who make their living driving sports cars and teaching Cup drivers the intricacies of road racing – have going into a road race, they give back by driving inferior equipment and pitting with crews pieced together for a single race.
To some degree, the road ringers are set up to fail. But that could all change this weekend as Fellows goes into Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon with the support of a team that's already won this season, while said will have the support of the Wood Brothers pit crew.
Brad Keselowski drove the 09 car to victory lane in Talladega. Though that's the only top-10 finish for that team in 11 races this season, it's enough to prove that A) it can build a winning race car and B) the crew is good enough to get the job done on pit road.
Fellows, who qualified 29th, and Said, who will start ninth, won't be the favorites to win. That distinction is still reserved for the Cup regulars – particularly Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya. But this looks to be one of the best situations a road ringer has ever had going into a road race.
Here are five other storylines to watch for Sunday during the Toyota/Save Mart 350:
1. Will double-file restarts be an issue?
In a word, yes.
Except at the start of the race, Infineon has never featured double-file restarts. They will be used on every restart Sunday, which Kurt Busch said will create chaos entering the first few turns of the 12-turn road course.
"The cars have a hard enough time running single-file and staying on the track as is," Busch said. "There is going to be many opportunities for extra yellow [flags]."
Jeff Burton said restarts are already difficult at Infineon, maybe the hardest on the entire circuit. He said his strategy will be to survive.
"Going up the hill and getting to the top of the hill and having to make a 90-degree turn, the speed difference between the guys still going up the hill and the guys on top of the hill having to make the turn is huge," he explained. "It’s just bumper-car tag up there."
2. Is Mark Martin better than we thought?
The one knock on Martin – long regarded as one of the best ever to race in the Cup Series – and his chances of winning a title in the Chase era was that he didn't have the nose for victory lane.
It had been 10 years since he won more than one race in a season, 11 since he'd won more than two.
But that's changed in a hurry since joining Hendrick Motorsports. Martin already has a series-high three wins this season, a total matched only by young gun Kyle Busch, and he's sure to find victory lane again. That would give Martin four wins, a total he's only achieved four times in his career.
So why at age 50 is he on the verge of having the best season of his career?
The obvious answer is the equipment, which Martin has acknowledged is the best he's ever driven. Which makes you wonder: If he won 35 races over 19 years driving for Jack Roush, how many would he have won if he'd been with Hendrick all that time?
3. How badly does Jimmie Johnson want to win a road race?
When asked Friday which void he'd rather fill – winning a road race or winning at Bristol – Johnson paused only momentarily before answering.
"Tough question," he said. "I'm going to go with the road course. I've spent so much time focusing on … road courses and running the extra events, so a road-course win for sure."
The lack of a road-course win is truly the only hole in Johnson's resume. He's won at Daytona, Indy, Darlington and Lowe's – NASCAR's most hallowed tracks. He's dominated at Martinsville, proving he can race on short tracks. And he's won three championships.
The one thing he hasn't done is win a road race of any kind.
"I'll take it in any form of racing," he said. "I've run that Rolex 24 race all the time because I love road-course racing and want to be a part of that. I certainly would love to win in a NASCAR vehicle to round out my resume, so it's really important."
The win probably won't come this weekend. Johnson, admittedly, isn't very good at Infineon Raceway, where his average finish is 19.3. But if he's in contention late in the race, look for him to take a chance in an effort to get himself to victory lane.
4. Should I keep an eye on Marcos Ambrose?
Absolutely, even though he will start at the back of the field.
Ambrose, who comes to Cup racing via the Australian Supercar series, has been one of the surprises of the season, showing deft familiarity on NASCAR's unfamiliar ovals.
This weekend, Ambrose gets back to the right and left turns with which he's familiar and more comfortable. He won at Watkins Glen a year ago in the Nationwide Series and was to start third in Sunday's Cup race before a blown engine in Saturday's practice. Now, he'll have to go to the back of the field.
While it's a huge blow, he's proven he can come from the back. He did it last year at Watkins Glen, when he started 43rd and wound up third.
"I'm trying to keep a lid on it, to be honest with you," Ambrose said of his emotion heading into his first road race in the Cup Series. "It's very easy to get too anxious because your expectations are high, so for me, I expect the worse and when anything goes better than that it's marvelous."
5. Who will take the biggest hit in the chase for the Chase?
Four drivers are within 100 points of the final spot in this year's Chase. At least 11 (if you count from Mark Martin in eighth all the way back to No. 18 Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is 255 back of 12th) are still in the hunt entirely.
Though there are still 11 races between now and the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where the Chase will begin in September, this weekend's road race stands to shake up the standings.
Those who enjoy road racing stand to gain. This group includes Martin, Kyle Busch (ninth in the standings), Jeff Burton (12th), Montoya (14th), Clint Bowyer (16th) and pole-sitter Brian Vickers (17th).
"I think everybody here and everybody from eighth to 15th in the points knows that they can’t afford any big mistakes," Montoya said.
When asked if this weekend is a chance for him to gain a lot of points, Montoya replied: "Or lose a lot. That’s why you have to be very smart and don’t try so hard to get a victory that we screw ourselves in the championship."
- Infineon Raceway
- Kyle Busch
- Watkins Glen International