NASCAR returns to road course racing this weekend, with the Sprint Cup heading west to the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma and the Nationwide Series heading to Elkhart Lake, Road America.
Despite the fact that they only happen twice per year, NASCAR's non-oval events have quickly become one of the highlights on the calendar, but the Infineon Raceway could not be more different from Watkins Glen, which NASCAR will visit in August.
“Sonoma is a very narrow, twisty, tight race track with a lot of elevation change,” road-course specialist Marcos Ambrose reveals. “It's a technical, challenging track, and hard to make passes. You're going to be bumper to bumper and side to side, and it's very easy to make contact.
“It's just the nature of the business and that's why there is a sell-out crowd there at the track. It's one of the best races of the year to watch as a fan. The drivers understand that you are going to have to do a few 'bump and runs' and have to make some contact to win the race.”
After his break-through Cup win at Watkins Glen last year, and given his form in recent years at the track, Ambrose is the clear favourite and starts on pole, his second in succession after topping 203 mph at Michigan last week. Ambrose’s status as favourite is cemented further considering that NASCAR machines are not built for road-course racing, which means that a good result is far more dependant on the driver than most circuits on the NASCAR tour.
“These cars are dinosaurs as far as race cars go: they've got way too much power, they don't have enough tyre grip, they're too heavy and they don't have enough brakes,” the double V8 Supercar champion says. “So as a race-car driver, these cars are really hard to handle and you have to really man-handle those cars around the race-track. We have to take it by the scuff of the neck and force it to go around.”
Road course events traditionally mean teams will bring road-course specialists in to race, with Boris Said and Robby Gordon set for their now customary yearly appearances in the lime-light with FAS Lane Racing and Robby Gordon Motorsports respectively, while the Nationwide Series prepares to welcome 1997 Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve in a competitive Team Penske ride, Max Papis at Richard Childress Racing and Ron Fellows at JR Motorsports alongside Danica Patrick. Add a fired-up Kurt Busch, ex-F1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr, Michael McDowell in the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing entry which has been the car to beat in the hands of Joey Logano, double Indy 500 champion Sam Hornish Jr. and title contenders Elliott Sadler, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to the mix, and we have an exciting race in prospect.
However, road-course racing is not always plain sailing, as double DTM champion Mattias Ekstrom discovered in 2010. The Swede had a tough baptism when deputising for Brian Vickers at Red Bull, qualifying down in 38th place, but ran competitively in the race and lead 7 laps. However, Ekstrom was cruelly denied a top-10 finish on his debut by an errant Brad Keselowski a few laps from home and ended up with a lowly 21st. A cautionary tale.