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He Can Go to His Right

NASCAR's life of left turns takes a break at Sonoma, and that suits Gordon just fine

June 21, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

SONOMA, Calif. — Twice a year, the big stock cars of NASCAR's Winston Cup series make right-hand turns as well as left, taking a break from their oval-track existence to run road courses, here at Sears Point's Infineon Raceway and at Watkins Glen, N.Y.

And twice a year, Jeff Gordon is the favorite.

The four-time Winston Cup champion, still only 33, has won seven road races. No other active driver has won more than four.

Here, only a few miles from Vallejo where he was born and lived as a youngster, Gordon will be going for road race victory No. 8 in the Dodge/Save Mart 350 on Sunday. The race, over a 10-turn, two-mile road course, will be 220 miles or 110 laps.

"I really don't know why, except that I never go to a track with a negative attitude and I know a lot of the other drivers don't like road racing and it shows," Gordon said. "If you go to a track with a negative attitude, you are never going to be successful.

"I knew from the beginning, I didn't have a lot of road racing background, but I always enjoyed the challenge. The first time I came here I got in the tire barriers, but I knew road racing was something I wanted to get better at and just a couple of years later we were winning on the road courses."

If there is a key to his success, he said, it is track position.

"We always talk about track position on ovals, but it's never as important as at a road course. That puts a premium on qualifying because it is extremely hard to pass, especially here at Infineon."

Gordon will start eighth Sunday after qualifying at 92.800 mph Friday, a remarkable speed considering that he wandered off the track toward the end of his one-lap qualifying effort.

Road racing specialist Boris Said, substituting for the injured Jerry Nadeau in the U.S. Army-sponsored Pontiac, won the pole with a track-record run of 93.620 mph. That bettered the 93.476 by Tony Stewart last year.

Said also will race in today's Featherlite Southwest Series race and in Sunday's Trans-Am, which follows the Dodge/Save Mart 350.

Off-road racing specialist Robby Gordon will start alongside Said with a speed of 93.262.

The Infineon race has been won four times from the pole, by Gordon in 1998 and 1999, Ernie Irvan in 1994 and Mark Martin in 1997.

"Track position is so important here because there are only one, maybe two, places where you can try to pass," Jeff Gordon said. "You can take some risks in one or two other areas, but it's really difficult."

He knows firsthand the perils of trying to pass in the "other areas."

In 1999, while chasing Martin, he careened off course into the dirt coming down the hill at the north end of the track and actually drove off-road for several hundred yards before miraculously getting the car back on the asphalt. He later won -- with a very dirty Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Friday, with only one lap to qualify, he did not have enough time to recover.

"It was pretty obvious how fast I would have gone if I hadn't driven off the race track," he said.

"It's so deceiving. You go out there and they don't even give you half a lap to get the temperature in the tires. The car is moving all over the place and you think, 'Man, I'm a lot slower than I was in practice,' but actually I was a lot faster.

"I came into Turn 10, and the car had been loose before that, and it actually pushed a little. I went off into the dirt and I had to get out of the gas to keep from wrecking it. I can't believe we still ran that lap. I'm amazed."

Gordon won three consecutive Sears Point races and four out of five at Watkins Glen, but engine gremlins got the best of him last year when he finished 37th here.

"I broke the rear-end gear," he said. "We had to come in and fix it and the day was over for us. We were running at the end, but so far back it didn't matter much.

"After the season was over, we went through all the rear-end gears and we found a weakness in the metal. It was almost too thin in the area that broke on us. We shouldn't have the same problem ever again."

Gordon said jokingly that his biggest problem this weekend might be trying to forget the lessons he learned from Juan Pablo Montoya when he tested a Formula One car last week in Indianapolis. In the F1 Williams-BMW, he turned laps approximately 30 seconds faster than in his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.

"One of the biggest differences was in the braking," he said. "In the F1 car, you drive deeper into the corner, stand on the brake, downshift and turn all at the same time. In a stock car, it's brake, wait a little bit, downshift, downshift, OK, now it's time to turn."

To refresh himself in handling a stock car, Gordon tested on a road course in Virginia.

"I had a ball with Juan and it was the thrill of a lifetime driving a Grand Prix car, but it was nice and refreshing to test my own car at [Virginia]. To get in and get on the brakes, do the downshifts, get used to turning right, get the loads on the left side of the car and get more familiar with how the car moves around when it turns both ways.

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