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Views On Road Racing Have Come Full Circle

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 19 2010

Marcos Ambrose can't curb his enthusiasm for racing on road courses. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

There was a time when NASCAR drivers headed toward road courses with dread in their hearts.

“These dang cars don’t like to turn right,’’ Dale Earnhardt told me at Riverside in 1980. “I like the challenge of something different, but I don’t think a lot of these guys are very good at racin’ here.  And the chances of getting through the race in one piece ain’t very good.’’

Things certainly have changed.

Even though there are still only two road circuits on the Sprint Cup schedule – Sonoma and Watkins Glen – there is very little trepidation among the drivers about racing the snake-like tracks.

Over the years, most of the NASCAR drivers have made an effort to become good road racers, attending schools and using modern technology, like simulators, to help them learn the courses.

“You can’t throw away two races worth of points,’’ explained Terry Labonte, who was one of the best of the NASCAR road racers throughout his career. “Each of these races is as important as any other we run, as far as the point standings are concerned. So you have to be ready.’’

When the Cup guys are on track this weekend in the rolling hills of Sonoma, Calif., they will be ready.

Fact is, most of the Cup drivers are now really good road racers.

“I’ve really enjoyed the road courses,’’ said Kurt Busch, who has three top-fives in nine starts at Sonoma and a best finish of seventh at Watkins Glen in nine tries. “Those races are so different from what we normally face week in and week out.

“I jokingly say quite often that it’s like having a weekend off because we are so used to turning left and here we are out there making left and right turns and shifting gears. It’s really a great change to break up all the oval tracks that we race on. It’s like a unique race that we always run in reverse. You always focus on when you can make it with your fuel window and go with that strategy and that’s what usually plays out at the end.”

Jimmie Johnson has had great success on just about every track, but his record on the road courses has been so-so with five top-fives in 16 starts on the two tracks and a best finish of third at Watkins Glen in 2007.

The four-time reigning Cup champion said he is constantly working to improve his road course skills and last year’s fourth-place finish at Sonoma – his best run there – was a big boost to him and his team.

“Man, every year since the start of the No. 48 team, we’ve tested more for road courses than any other specific race track,’’ Johnson said. “I continue to run the Grand Am (sports car) series when I can, to help.

“I feel like, last year, we were close. We tend to qualify well, but fade in the race some and last year was kind of the reverse of that. We qualified decent and had some troubles early in the race but rebounded and came through and ended up fourth. I have a lot of confidence but, at the same time, after eight years of trying, I’m hopeful we have overturned a stone that we have missed in the past.’’

One of the biggest changes from the early days of stock car road racing is the cars themselves. They are still big and heavy, but the teams are constantly finding ways to make it easier for the drivers to throw the big cars around the road circuits.

“After spending the first 15 weeks of the season worrying about making the cars turn left, at Infineon we have to concentrate on making them turn right,  and we have to do it without any banking,’’ noted Howard Comstock, an engineer for Dodge Motorsports. “There are a few important left hand turns there but, in a clockwise rotation track, you’ve got to concentrate on getting the setup that will get you through more rights than lefts to be successful.

“The other issue is that we’ve had banking at every track for the first 15 weeks of the season to help us get the cars through all those corners but, at a road course, there’s no banking and no help. Road course racing, especially with a 3,400 pound stock car, is a great engineering challenge. ‘’

Probably the biggest single challenge is braking.

“The brakes go through a true torture test on the 1.99 mile road course,’’ Comstock said. “If drivers use their brakes 100 percent, they simply won’t last the entire race. Brake conservation is critical in any race strategy but, with 11 turns, Infineon Raceway is a one of the most demanding.”

Joey Logano, who finished 19th at Sonoma and 16th at Watkins Glen last year in his first Cup races at those tracks, says he really likes the challenge of the road courses. And the 20-year-old thinks he has come up with the secret to doing well while turning left AND right.

“If you can stay on the course for the entire race you are going to get a good finish,’’ Logano said.

Pretty much what the drivers were preaching back in 1980. Maybe it’s a little easier advice to follow these days.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 19 2010
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  • Stephen says:

    Road races may be challenging to the drivers and a nice change of pace for them, but for me the television viewer, they are pretty dang boring.