ON RACING: Road racers take center stage

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As a road-racing fan, this is one of my favorite NASCAR weekends, with the Sprint Cup series at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma and the Nationwide series running at Road America in Wisconsin.

However, having the two road course events on the same weekend is causing a number of road racing "ringers" to have to choose between them.

Boris Said, with a Camping World Truck win at Infineon and a Nationwide victory at Montreal on his resume, is probably the best bet among the specialists to win in Sunday's Cup race. He will be joined by P.J. Jones, Tommy Drissi, Tony Ave, Andy Pilgrim, and Brian Simo, all of whom have impressive histories in road racing. At Road America, look for Formula 1 and Indy champion Jacques Villeneuve to run at the front in the Nationwide race, driving the No. 22 Penske Dodge and trying to avenge last year's loss to Carl Edwards. Villeneuve and Edwards swapped the lead numerous times in 2010 until a mechanical problem dropped the Canadian out of contention. Max Papis, Ron Fellows, J.R. Fitzpatrick, and Andrew Ranger will also join the Nationwide regulars for the race. Edwards is the only Cup driver who will be commuting between the two tracks to run both races. Marcos Ambrose desperately wants to win Sunday's race at Infineon after throwing away a sure victory last year when the car stalled during a fuel-saving maneuver. Juan Montoya has won at both Infineon and Watkins Glen, and would dearly love to put a third road-course notch on his steering wheel. Jeff Gordon, who leads the stats with nine road course wins (five at the Sonoma track), is having a strong season, and don't count out his teammate and last year's winner Jimmie Johnson.

Another driver to keep an eye on is Tony Stewart, with two wins at Infineon. Robby Gordon, A.J. Allmendinger, Andy Lally, and Casey Mears are all Cup regulars with lots of road-racing experience as well, and you could do worse than to have them on your fantasy league team.

The new point system in NASCAR has made for some interesting swings in the early races. However, as point totals build up, opportunities to make up ground are rapidly disappearing. The biggest hope for a number of drivers seems to be securing one of the "wild card" spots in the chase. These will be given to the two drivers with the most wins who are out of the top 10 in points, but still within the top 20. So a victory this weekend could very well put someone like Ambrose in a position to snag one of those spots. When the Chase starts after Richmond, the points for the top 12 drivers will be set at 2000 each with a bonus for each win. However, the two drivers who make it into the wild card spots will not receive point bonuses for their wins. I'm not sure if the new point system has anything to do with it, but 2011 has been a record-setting year in Sprint Cup competition. The number of average leaders in a race (13) and lead changes (31) are both all-time highs at this point in the season. It's the first time since 2003 that there have been 10 different winners in the first 15 races, and the total number of passes made (3,756) is also a record since NASCAR started keeping that statistic in 2005. And Kurt Busch, with three straight poles, is on track to tie Ryan Newman's 2004 performance with four in a row. The all time record for five consecutive poles is a three-way tie between NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison (1972) and Cale Yarborough (1980), along with future Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott (1985).

Finally, the grand marshal for Sunday's Cup race at Infineon is John Ratzenberger, who played mail carrier Cliff Claven on the old "Cheers" sitcom. I wonder if the "Gentlemen, start your engines" command will deteriorate into a long-winded explanation of some arcane factoid about race cars or wine. If his old buddy Norm were doing it, it would probably go, "Start your engines and hand me a beer."


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