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Pedley: Road Racing Skill Essential For Driver Cred

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 20 2009
Kurt Busch executes a pirouette at Infineon. Try doing this on a oval.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Kurt Busch executes a pirouette at Infineon. Try doing this on a oval. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

There are a number of things about Sprint Cup road racing which should and will be debated for as long as NASCAR opts to run races at places like Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

Things like, should NASCAR continue to run races at those places? And should a road race be inserted into the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship playoff lineup?

But there is one thing about NASCAR running road races which seems to be beyond debate, and that is the importance that drivers attach to winning at Infineon or The Glen. Most drivers will tell you that it is not only important to show they can handle life on the twisties, but that it is essential that they can prove they can.

Jimmie Johnson would seem to have little to prove to anybody when it comes to his reputation as a driver. He has won the last three Sprint Cup Championships and in just his eighth full season in the series, he has won 42 races.

None of those victories have come on a road course, however, and on Friday he was asked how important that is to him.

“Extremely important,” Johnson said. “I’ll take it in any form of racing. 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.”

NASCAR fans bash road racing, the media bashes it and many drivers do.

It is simply not racing they say. It is boring they say. No passing, no wrecks, no fun. Watch IndyCars on the roads, or, gasp, Formula One? One columnist said he would rather take a lawn chair down to the freeway and watch Honda Civics go past. More chance for action and passing doing that, he said.

But among the required skills for drivers is ego. Not bad ego as in chest-pounding and trash talking. But ego as in a need to feel that they are among the best in the world at what they do.

They seem to especially need to prove that to their peers.

In NASCAR, there seems to be broad feeling that to earn that respect, you need to show that in addition to drafting bumper-to-bumper at 200 mph, you also need to show you possess road skills.

Such as?

“It’s hard to say what the particular skill set is,” Johnson said being good at places like Infineon and The Glen, “but there are a lot of things to it with the techniques of shifting and downshifting and putting together a series of corners and looking far enough ahead.

“I also think the vision from driving on an oval versus a road course is much different. On an oval you’ve got a lot of room to maneuver and you’re more worried about momentum. Where on a road course you have to be very precise and look where you want to put the car and place it there. So, it’s a different skill set.

“But I enjoy it and I hope to run well and I look forward running well because the way I grew up racing was just like it, so I really hope it comes together for us.”

It came together for Kyle Busch a year ago. And boy, did it feel good.

See, Busch had a season for the record books last year. He showed that he was the complete driver as he won races in Cup, Nationwide and Camping World.

But asked about his proudest accomplishments last year, he placed getting his first road-racing victory near the top.

“Winning the Toyota race at Infineon Raceway was really cool,” Busch said. “Probably the other highlight of last year, aside from getting Toyota its first-ever Sprint Cup win at Atlanta. For me, to be able to put myself on the list of road-course winners, that was pretty special, too.”

Some NASCAR fans also do not know just how much drivers in their sport follow road-racing circuits. Many love IndyCars, sports cars and especially, Formula One.

One would think that veteran Mark Martin would be not be among that group.

On the contrary, Martin is a complete racer and he has big respect for the people who are good at it.

“One of the reasons I wanted to stick around was Juan (Pablo) Montoya was coming to NASCAR,” Martin said. “I wanted to be around to see that and be a part of that and be able to race with him and stuff.  That holds true on an oval as well as a road course.  It’s obvious he shines everywhere he goes, but definitely he started out really shining here.

“It’s fun, but I really feel that way not only on a road course – I feel like he shines everyday that he straps in that thing.  I believe that what he has done is incredible – to come to this sport from the racing that he came from and to do what he’s done and what he’s doing every week is pretty spectacular.”

The trophy for winning at Infineon is pretty cool. Some neat little wine barrels stacked up – sorry to break the news, but many NASCAR drivers have become as fond of sipping the stuff as their open-wheel counter parts.

But the trophy will stand for more than that for the guy who wins it. It will signal to all that he is a complete professional race-car driver. He’s a road-course winner.

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 20 2009
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