Roger Diez: Sprint Cup heads to Infineon this weekend

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This is a record-setting weekend for fans of NASCAR road racing, a group I'm proud to be a member of. The Sprint Cup series makes its 22nd annual trip to Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Califa., this weekend. I regularly attended the race there for many years, usually in the announce booth or out on a turn, but I haven't been able to make it recently. Since I used to race there (back when the track was known as Sears Point), I really enjoyed watching the Cup drivers at the track. I liken the experience to a recreational baseball player watching the Yankees and the Red Sox coming to Governor's Field in Carson City to play a game. You go, "Wow, these guys are playing on my field, and they're really good!"


Here are some fast facts about the Cup series at Infineon. When Sunday's green flag flies, the Cup series will begin its 2,000 lap of competition at the track. Over the years, 13 different drivers have taken the checkered flag there. Jeff Gordon has experienced the most success, with five poles and five wins, three of those from pole. During the last five years there have been no repeat winners at Infineon. Juan Pablo Montoya is the only rookie to win at the track, and he did it by coming from the farthest back in the field (32nd) of any winner there. Michael Waltrip has run the most laps of any driver at Infineon, with 1,770 of the 1,999 total. Jeff Burton will make his 500th consecutive Cup start tomorrow. And the double-file restart, used for the first time last season, has given drivers with poor qualifying runs more opportunity to improve their positions during the race; eight of the top 15 finishers from last year's race started 20th or worse.


Road course "ringers" have been part of NASCAR road course races since the beginning. However, in recent years the Cup regulars have become more adept at turning both left and right, and in fact a "ringer" has never won a Cup race at Infineon. Drivers with road racing backgrounds have been invading the Cup series full-time for the past few years. Among the Cup regulars who came up through road racing are Montoya, Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger, Max Papis and Scott Speed. Road course specialists on hand this weekend are P.J. Jones in the 07 car, Jan Magnusson in the 09, Boris Said aboard the 26, Brian Simo driving the 36, Brandon Ash wheeling the 02, and Swedish driver Matthias Ekstrom taking over the 83 from Casey Mears. Ekstrom is a World Rally driver with experience in the German Touring Car series, and he has beaten the likes of seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher in the International Race of Champions. The 83 may set a record for the number of drivers in a season, as Mears will be replaced by Reed Sorenson starting next week.


Since the Nationwide series is running at Road America, halfway across the country, the road course specialists are split this weekend. Ron Fellows, Jacques Villeneuve, Tony Ave, and Patrick Long are all running the Nationwide race. And only Cup regulars Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, and Paul Menard will be making the long commute between Infineon and Road America to run in both series this weekend.


The Indycar series is also racing this weekend, at Iowa Speedway. Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti is undefeated at the fast 7/8 mile oval, having won both of the previous Indycar races there. If Franchitti prevails, it will be the 17th consecutive Indycar oval race that has been won by either a Ganassi or Penske driver. If I were with one of the other teams, I think I'd be getting a little frustrated by now. And there is good news for fans of American drivers in the series. Graham Rahal will be in the race, replacing Mike Conway who was injured in a frightening crash at Indy. Ryan Hunter Reay has obtained sponsorship from U.S. Ethanol, so he will race in Iowa, as will Sarah Fisher who is running a partial schedule this year.


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