Can Gordon get on track on the road?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 26, 2005

Roger Miller used to sing about the King of the Road, but I bet that he didn’t realize that he was penning that song about Jeff Gordon. After what undoubtedly has to be one of the worst stretches of finishes in his career, Gordon gets back into his comfort zone this week at Infineon Raceway at Sonoma, California. This track is one of only two road-course tracks on the NASCAR schedule and Gordon typically dominates on these tracks.

With a NASCAR record of eight victories at Sonoma and Watkins Glenn, Gordon has to be the driver to beat this week. His main competition will come from Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, and the usual list of ringers that get one-race deals for the road-course races. There will be no fewer than eight road-course regulars attempting to get into this race. Most will make the race and a couple, including Ron Fellows and Boris Said, will be a threat to post top-five finishes.

Two full-time drivers will be stepping aside this week and giving up their seats to drivers more familiar with this track. Bobby Hamilton, Jr. will give way to Fellows and Joe Gibbs’ driver Jason Leffler will step aside for Terry Labonte to drive the FedEx car Sunday. Both of those drivers sit outside the top 35 in owners’ points and would have had to earn a position in the race on speed.

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Neither team is in the position to chance not making the race, so changing drivers for this week is their best option.

If history holds true, this is not the best track in the world for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to make up points in his struggling effort to make the chase. Sonoma is one of two tracks that Junior has never posted a top-ten finish. In fact, his average finish is 19th in five career races here. A road course is so different from what these guys are used to week in and week out; only eight active drivers have ever posted wins on a road-course track.

Even though Gordon is dominate at these tracks, his team is somewhat snake-bit lately and I think that trend will continue this week. My pick to win the race is Martin. Even though Gordon leads in victories, Martin has posted 13 top-ten finishes in the 16 races that have been run at this track. Despite being winless on the season, Martin has been as consistent as anyone and this week I think he goes to victory lane and pretty much sews up a spot in the chase.

Speaking of the Chase for the Cup, only 11 drivers are currently within the magic 400 point reach of Jimmie Johnson, the points leader. Early in the season, I predicted 14 drivers would make the chase and that is still possible, but it is looking like it will be the top 10, just as it was last year.

This race winds up Fox’s portion of the television coverage. NBC will pick up the races next week with the Saturday night Daytona race.

I don’t know about you, but I think Fox’s coverage is head and shoulders above the NBC guys, but oh well, we get to watch Benny Parsons and Wally Dallenbach starting next week. Race coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. and the green flag drops at 3:30. Enjoy the race.

Jeff Findley is the publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald in Ahoskie, N.C.

His racing column regularly appears in newspapers across the southeast. He can be reached by e-mail at jeff.