SONOMA, Calif. – Road course racing in NASCAR is the great equalizer. It's where superior drivers can compete for the lead in inferior equipment.
That doesn't happen on the bigger, faster ovals, where 10ths of a second come at a cost of a few million dollars here, a few million there.
No, in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway's 12-turn road course, we'll see the usual suspects, but we'll also see those normally characterized as field fillers racing for the win, too.
With this in mind, here's a look at the top five story lines heading into Sunday's race:
1. Can a "road ringer" finally break through? Every year, road course specialists like Ron Fellows and Boris Said are in the hunt. But every year they fall just short of the likes of Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart. This weekend's field includes six drivers who can be characterized as a ringer. Of those, Marcos Ambrose, who was fastest in practice and will roll off seventh, appears to be in the best position to pull off the upset.
2. Will Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon post victory No. 1 in 2008? The last time we were 15 races into a season without either Stewart or Gordon having won a race was 1994 – Gordon's sophomore season. Stewart has shown more promise than Gordon in '08, but Gordon will start fifth, while Stewart will have work his way through the field after qualifying a disappointing 39th.
3. Will heat be a factor? The forecast in Sonoma calls for temperatures in the mid-80s. Couple this with the drivers' complaints about how hot it is inside new car and heat could play a role in the outcome, especially for a driver who's not in the best physical shape.
4. How will the points shake out? With only 133 points separating 11th and 17th place in the standings, this is a race primed for a host of drivers to either move up or move down. Who's best positioned to move up? Tony Stewart in 11th. Move down? David Ragan, who's 13th.
5. Will there be much passing? Track position is king at the road course, and especially so this weekend at Sonoma where drivers are saying there's no place to pass.
"Where do you pass?" Dale Earnhardt Jr. wondered. "A couple of brake zones but that's about it. You just wait on people to screw up. We'll probably try to save as much gas as we can this week.â€
Can you say fuel-mileage win again?