Ringers will do well, but expect a regular to win at Sonoma

Updated: June 27, 2008, 2:46 PM ET

Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR

When the dust cleared at Sonoma in 2007, Juan Pablo Montoya had earned his first Sprint Cup victory.

Start Your Engines

If you're starting to get a little touch of midseason NASCAR malaise, watching mostly the same 43 cars go in circles, this week is your savior.

Ahh, Sonoma, Calif. Wine country. Abundant sunshine. Right-hand turns.

Infineon Raceway is the first of two road courses on the Sprint Cup schedule, a 1.99-mile route with not only lefts and rights, but ups and downs. It's a welcome respite for the drivers from their weekly oval world.

"It's nice because it kind of breaks up the monotony of the season. We do the same thing every week and it's nice to have two road-course races thrown in the mix that give us a chance to do something a little bit off-center for all of us," said Tony Stewart, 11th in points for Joe Gibbs Racing and a two-time winner at Sonoma.

Actually, not all the Cup regulars will be on the road. Sonoma and the August race in Watkins Glen, N.Y., always bring out a number of ringers who specialize in road-course racing in non-NASCAR series.

Ron Fellows, a three-time winner at Sonoma in the American Le Mans Series, will take Regan Smith's place in the No. 01 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet, making his seventh Cup start at the track. He finished 15th last year.

California native Scott Pruett will drive Reed Sorenson's No. 41 Chip Ganassi Racing Dodge, with an eye on a good enough finish to get Sorenson some breathing room in the owners' points. Pruett, the current points leader in the Rolex Sports Car Series, finished third at Sonoma in 2003 in a Ganassi Dodge.

Of course, it wouldn't be a NASCAR road race without Boris Said, making his first Cup appearance since failing to qualify for the Daytona 500. Last month he raced in Germany at the 24 Hours of Nurburgring, and this weekend he'll hope to run Sonoma for the ninth time.

And that's just three of the expected half-dozen road aces. Odds are most will be competitive, but none will win. Not since Mark Donohue at Riverside in 1973, driving a Penske AMC Matador, has a ringer stepped in and beat the Cup crowd.

Some of the best on ovals are equally adept on the road courses, none more so than Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon, a nine-time road winner including five at Sonoma. He last won in 2004 and 2006, so perhaps '08 makes sense.

"It's a special weekend for us," said Gordon, ninth in points but still looking for his first win of the year. "We've had a lot of success at Sonoma. So, from the team's perspective, this is a race we are really looking forward to."

Ditto Juan Pablo Montoya, the defending champion. The former Formula One driver certainly carried the road-course ringer label before ever sitting in a Cup car, then delivered in his first shot at Sonoma.

"Last year, I felt a ton of pressure heading into Infineon because everyone expected me to run well and win because of my background," Montoya said. "This year I don't feel any pressure. We are focused on making our race cars and our race team better. Our goal is to run well, and if we have a shot at the win, obviously we are going to take it."

Cup regulars always do at Sonoma, beating a few different faces along the road.

Rocket Man

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: We can't resist a moment of conspiracy-theorizing here. NASCAR gets broadsided with a $225 million harassment lawsuit from a former official. The drivers are called in by league brass and told to make like the Partridge Family -- "c'mon get hap-pyyyyy!" -- a meeting that essentially validated the concerns that maybe there is something wrong with this new car and the way it races.

In the wake of all this, who would you expect to win the next race? Jamie McMurray?

OK, conspiracy talk closed. In reality, Junior's win wasn't fishy if you've been paying attention all year. The Hendrick Motorsports newbie has been outstanding, with an average finish of 10.5 that blows away his best seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Throw away the crashes at California and Dover, and the No. 88 hasn't been outside the top 15. All that was missing was a win, and Michigan shouldn't be the last one in '08.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.



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Ryan Newman: The stars are lining up perfectly wrong, and that may keep the Daytona 500 winner out of the Chase and maybe out of Penske Racing come 2009. On the track, he finished second to last at Michigan with engine problems, his fourth finish off the lead lap in five races. He dropped three spots in the points to 17th, behind the surging Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers.

Off the track, the No. 12 Dodge driver doesn't know if the No. 12 Dodge will be his ride next year. With the announcement of Caterpillar replacing AT&T as sponsor for Jeff Burton's No. 31 Richard Childress Chevy, Alltel is now the last telecommunications sponsor left outside series title sponsor Sprint. The company is reportedly going to be sold to Verizon and NASCAR won't let Verizon step in anew, for Sprint's sake.

Newman says his decision to stay or leave Penske Racing will be determined by sponsorship and performance, and right now the news isn't good on either front.

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J.J. Yeley: It's going to be a struggle here on out for the Hall of Fame Racing Toyota -- as if it hasn't been already. Yeley, out of the top-35 in owners' points, failed to qualify in April at Talladega and two weeks ago at Pocono. Sitting 38th in those standings, 200-plus points away from the cutoff, he'll likely be on the qualifying bubble all year, especially with how the No. 96 is faring when it does race.

Yeley finished 41st at Michigan, completing just over half the scheduled laps before going out with an engine failure.

"The car was actually pretty good most of the race, and then coming off Turn 2 I picked up a little bit of vibration -- moreso than I had the whole time -- and I could smell the stink of burnt oil," Yeley said.

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Tony Stewart: No one inside the Chase cutoff needed a good Sunday at Michigan more than Smoke, and he got it with a fifth-place finish in the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He had finished 18th or worse in five of six races coming in and had dropped to 12th in points, the danger spot.

"As bad as we've been the last couple of weeks, this feels like a win," he said.

Stewart's fifth-place purse, $136,986, was donated to the Red Cross in his hometown of Columbus, Ind., for flood relief, a cause on his mind all weekend. When he announced he would turn over his winnings prior to the race, one got the feeling there would not be any way he wasn't going to bring in a six-figure check.