The Infineon road course turns pretenders into contenders, and vice versa.

ONE TO WATCH: Jeff Gordon
WHY HE MATTERS: He’s Infineon’s all-time leading winner.
WHAT HE SAYS: “Really looking forward to coming out to Sonoma.”
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: He entered June ranked 16th in points; a win Sunday could push him to the top 10 and tie him with Kevin Harvick as the top seed in the Chase.

CENTERPIECE
Surprises right and left
The Infineon road course turns pretenders into contenders, and vice versa

Even the most avid Sprint Cup fan can become a bit jaded over the nine-month season. A steady diet of ovals — even those as varied as the tight half-mile at Martinsville and the vast Talladega Superspeedway — breeds a certain ennui after a while. At times it feels as if Sprint Cup racing really is, as its detractors claim, just cars going around in circles.
That’s what makes the two road courses such a refreshing departure. This Sunday, four months into the season, the Cup cars will turn right for the first time, at Infineon Raceway. And suddenly a handful of drivers who have spent most of the season below the radar will be prominent on the screen, while a few championship contenders will find themselves wallowing among the start-and-park set. Here’s a breakdown of those most likely to reverse roles.  

Pretenders-into-contenders
• Marcos Ambrose
A year ago this was his race to lose — and he did. Ambrose was leading with seven laps to go when he stalled his car under caution while trying to conserve fuel. He’s with a different team this year (RPM; last year he was with JTG-Daugherty Racing), but there’s no reason to think that this native of Tasmania won’t be among the front-runners again. He’s qualified in the top 10 at Infineon three times in three tries (including with the Wood Brothers in 2008), with matching top-10 finishes each of the last two years.

• A.J. Allmendinger
If Ambrose is indeed a contender, it’s likely that Allmendinger, his RPM teammate, will be as well. Like Ambrose, Allmendinger has a road-racing background. Before coming to NASCAR, he won five races in the Champ Car World Series — all on street or road courses. And while his average Infineon finish (19th) isn’t impressive, he finished seventh here two years ago.

• Juan Pablo Montoya
He had three top-10 finishes in the season’s first six races. He’s had just one since. If he’s to have any hope of repeating the deep Chase run he made in 2009, he must start here. Statistically, Infineon is his best track by far. He’s had four top-10s in four career starts, including his first career win (in 2007). And his average finish is 5.8, which is almost seven spots better than his next-best track, Watkins Glen — another road course. 

Contenders-into-pretenders
• Carl Edwards
His struggles at Infineon are hard to explain. It’s not as if he can’t handle road racing. He’s won Nationwide races at Montreal and Elkhart Lake, and his Sprint Cup resume at Watkins Glen is impressive: three top-fives in six starts, and an average finish of 8.2. But his average Infineon finish is 18.8, and it’s the only Cup track where he’s never had a top-five.

• Matt Kenseth
His Infineon ineptitude is even more pronounced than his Roush Fenway teammate’s. Like Edwards, Kenseth doesn’t have a top-5 finish here — and he’s made five more starts. Unlike Edwards, he doesn’t have one at Watkins Glen, either. And also unlike Edwards, Kenseth has never led a lap at Infineon; he’s 0 for 1,196 since his first Cup start here in 2000. Last year Kenseth’s troubles at Infineon started in the garage, where the car barely made it through inspection in time to qualify — a circumstance that prompted team owner Jack Roush to make a crew chief change.

• Kurt Busch
Hard to believe that a Roger Penske-led team could be so uncompetitive on a road course. Penske himself was once an accomplished road racer. Sports Illustrated named him the SCCA Driver of the Year in 1961. And when Penske joined NASCAR, his team specialized in road courses, first with Mark Donohue and later with Rusty Wallace. But for some reason the Captain has been unable to impart that road-racing wisdom to Kurt Busch, whose average Infineon finish in five starts with Penske has been 21.2. (Penske’s other charge, Brad Keselowski, finished 35th in his lone Infineon start a year ago.)


NEXT RACE Toyota/Savemart 350, Infineon Raceway
THE LOWDOWN Watch Kyle Busch. Not because he’s the favorite but because … well, he’s Kyle Busch. First, Busch spent a month on probation for a post-race fracas at Darlington. Then he was docked 6 points at Pocono because his car was too low in post-race inspection. In Michigan the problem surfaced in pre-race inspection; Busch (along with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano) had his oil pan confiscated. Said Busch, “Some teams get away with (these things), other teams maybe not.” Put Busch in the “maybe not” category in perpetuity.

PAST WINNERS
2010 Jimmie Johnson
2009 Kasey Kahne
2008 Kyle Busch
2007 Juan Pablo Montoya
2006 Jeff Gordon

ABOUT Sonoma
TRACK: Infineon Raceway (Sonoma, Calif.), 1.990-mile road course
RACE LENGTH: 110 laps, 218.9 miles (approx. 350 kilometers)
FIRST RACE: 1989
SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup

Quote of note
“Feels good to get a win after sneaking up on everyone.” – Denny Hamlin, after his first win of 2011, at Michigan, last Sunday.

Where to watch
Sunday’s pre-race show on TNT starts at 2 p.m. EDT, followed by the race at 3:00.

UP TO SPEED
Course of history
Since the track’s all-time leading winner, Jeff Gordon, scored his fifth Infineon victory in 2006, there have been four straight first-time winners at the twisting Northern California road course. The first, Juan Pablo Montoya, was no shock. After all, Montoya, a former Formula 1 ace, had an extensive road-racing background. But the three first-timers since then — Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson, respectively — have all been somewhat surprising. Despite their obvious talent on ovals, none had ever shown an affinity for road racing. So who is this year’s dark-horse candidate? Clint Bowyer. Of the five drivers with the highest average Infineon finishes since 2007 (see chart), only Bowyer has never won there.

Not so wild (yet)
If the season ended today, the 12 Chase qualifiers would be the same under the new “wild card” format as they would have been under the old system. The new format gives berths to the top 10 in points, plus the two drivers from 11 to 20 in the standings with the most wins. With two victories in 2011, Jeff Gordon, currently 12th in points, is the only driver from 11 to 20 to have won a race this season. So he would get one wild card spot. The other would go to 11th-ranked Tony Stewart. In other words, the top 12 would still make the Chase. (The only difference is that Gordon wouldn’t be given bonus points in the seedings.) Still, with 11 races to go until the Chase, there’s a good chance of another driver squeaking out a win — or for Kansas winner Brad Keselowski, currently 22nd in points, to crack the top 20.

Milestone
Landon Cassill, who has started for four different teams over parts of the last two seasons, finished a career-high 12th at Michigan, driving for James Finch. It also marked the first time in 30 career starts that Cassill, a former start-and-park driver, had finished on the lead lap in consecutive races.

WEEKLY STATS
Average Infineon finishes since 2007

RANK  DRIVER   AVG. FINISH 
1  Juan Pablo Montoya 5.8
2  Jeff Gordon   6.0
3  Tony Stewart  6.8
4  Jimmie Johnson  9.2
5  Clint Bowyer  11.8
6  Greg Biffle   12.8
7  Ryan Newman  15.0
8  Kasey Kahne  15.2
9  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  15.5
10  Kevin Harvick  16.0
11  Marcos Ambrose*  17.0
12  Carl Edwards  17.2
13  Kyle Busch   17.5
14  Casey Mears *  18.3
15 (tie) A.J. Allmendinger*  19.0
15  Denny Hamlin  19.0
17  Jeff Burton   19.2
18  David Gilliland  19.5
19  Boris Said   20.5
20  Jamie McMurray  21.0
* Three starts; all others have four.