Eye On The Super Subs

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SONOMA, Calif. – The era of specialization has certainly hit NASCAR. There are shock specialists, pit coaches and tire changers. And now, of course, specialization has reached the driver level.

Seven drivers were hired specifically for today’s Winston Cup event at Sears Point Raceway. An eighth failed to qualify. Six of the seven – Tom Hubert qualified for Buckshot Jones – will race today, and many actually have a shot of winning the race.

What gives? Are Winston Cup drivers that bad that someone else has to drive for them? Well, not exactly.

Ron Fellows, for example, is driving a part-time schedule for NEMCO Motorsports, and Sears Point is one of the races. And Scott Pruett is subbing for the injured Joe Nemechek.

But Sears Point is the exception, not the rule. Sears Point is, of course, a road course. Since there are only two of them, Watkins Glen being the other, on the Winston Cup schedule, some Cup drivers are hardly experts. Some drivers, in fact, hate the road courses and are simply hoping to get out of them without a wrecked race car.

Then there are the road course experts: Fellows, Pruett, Robby Gordon, Brian Simo, Dorsey Schroeder and Boris Said. All grew up turning left and right on the nation’s – and the world’s – road courses. They all possess road-racing skills that some Winston Cup drivers simply don’t have time to learn, and that’s why they’re at Sears Point.

“They have an advantage of knowing the race track,” Johnny Benson said. “They have an advantage of knowing road-course racing. It would be no different than if their series ever ran ovals and we came over and did that. We’d have an advantage. This weekend puts a lot of pressure on those guys because everyone thinks they’re going to win.”

Gordon, a former full-time Cup driver, was the fastest of the bunch Friday, qualifying the Ultra Motorsports No. 7 in seventh. Pruett starts 11th, Fellows 13th and Simo 15th. Hubert qualified Jones’ car 29th, but Jones will start at the rear of the field. Schroeder barely made it in the field, qualifying 36th.

Said drove off the track in qualifying, but his Jasper Motorsports team got a provisional, and Said will start 42nd – it could be fun watching him try to work his way to the front.

Jeff Gordon has won three straight races at Sears Point and is tied for the all-time lead with six Winston Cup road-course victories. But he knows a good driver when he sees one.

“You never know what guys like Ron Fellows or Boris Said are going to bring to the table and how good they’re going to be,” Gordon said. “I saw a lot of guys make mistakes out there (Friday) that might have had a shot at us.”

And they might have a shot at him Sunday, too.

“In road-course racing, a lot of it has to do with the guy behind the wheel,” said Jim Long, Robby Gordon’s crew chief. “If you give him a decent car he’s going to put it up front. Usually the drivers who do nothing but road racing are the best road-course drivers because that’s all they do. It’s as simple as that.

“Everybody will notice that there are a ton of road-course drivers that drive 15 or 20 road-course races a year that will pop up in these cars this weekend. And they’ll all be up front because we race two road courses a year. There are some people who are very exceptional road racers in this garage, but the majority of them are just getting by. That’s only because we race twice a year on a road course and they race 15 or 18 times.”

So who are these road racers? And for whom do they drive? Let’s take a look:

Gordon, No. 7 Ultra Motorsports Ford. Owner Jim Smith gave regular driver Mike Wallace a couple weekends off to evaluate his team, and Gordon brings solid road-racing credentials.

Starting his career in off-road racing, Gordon has two victories in seven seasons in the mostly road-course CART series. He also has four class victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and was second in the IMSA GTO series in 1990.

His best career Winston Cup finish has been fourth, which he’s done twice. Care to guess where? Sears Point and Watkins Glen.

Pruett, No. 33 Andy Petree Racing Chevy. Nemechek is still mending injuries from his crash in testing at Dover last month, so Petree brought Pruett back to Winston Cup. Pruett ran for PPI Motorsports last year, but was let go after his rookie season.

Still, Pruett has an impressive resume. He competed in CART for 10 years, winning poles at Portland and Detroit and winning at Australia. Before CART, Pruett won IMSA GTO titles in 1986 and 1988 and SCCA Trans-Am championships in 1987 and 1994.

He’s been a class winner at the 24 Hours of Daytona three times and last week drove a Corvette to a class win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Fellows, No. 87 NEMCO Motorsports Chevy. Car owner Nemechek likes to run up front, and Fellows has done that in NASCAR road-racing events. In the past three years at Watkins Glen, Fellows has two Busch Series victories, one Craftsman Truck Series win and was second to Gordon in the 1999 Winston Cup race.

Now, they’ll try their hand at Sears Point. Too bad its not an endurance race, for Fellows has victories in two 24-hour races this season: Daytona and Le Mans.

Fellows has piled up victories in some other road-racing series, as well. He has 20 wins in Trans-Am and two in the American Le Mans series. Though he doesn’t have an overall championship, Fellows was second in Trans-Am from 1993-1995.

Simo, No, 90 Donlavey Racing Ford. This is one team who put its regular driver, Hut Stricklin, on the sidelines. And for good reason, for Simo is the defending Trans-Am champion and won the most recent race at Detroit.

“The Winston Cup drivers have a tremendous amount of experience in these big cars, so anybody coming in has a bit of a handicap because of the lack of seat time,” said Simo, who finished 36th in the No. 90 last year at Sears Point. “But we have experience on road courses, so we’re looking for a balance between inexperience with the mass and experience on road courses.

“I just don’t know the car. The car is better than me. The team is better than me, so I’m the weak link here and I’m just gonna do the best I can.”

Hubert, No. 44 Petty Enterprises Dodge. Hubert isn’t exactly a road-course expert, for his career started on the short tracks in California. But Hubert, who’s the interim car chief for Dave Blaney’s Winston Cup team, has been adept on the road courses.

He qualified second in a NCTS race at Sears Point in 1997, then started 11th in his Cup debut – at Sears Point – that year. In 1998, he qualified 10th at Sears Point and 20th at Watkins Glen. Last year at Watkins Glen, he subbed for the injured Jeremy Mayfield, putting Mayfield’s car 16th on the starting grid.

Schroeder, No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Dodge. Ganassi wanted someone with more road-racing experience than his regular driver, Jason Leffler, in the No. 01 for Sears Point. Schroeder has plenty of that.

Schroeder was the Trans-Am champ in 1989, then won the IMSA GTO title in 1990. He’s won the Daytona 24-hour race, and this year drives for Audi in the American Le Mans series.

Schroeder, though, came close to embarrassment when he was the last car to make the field on speed.

Said, No. 77 Jasper Motorsports Ford. Like Simo, Said was hired for the road courses only, replacing Jasper’s regular driver, Robert Pressley. Said has raced in all kinds of road-course series and currently competes full time in Trans-Am, winning the season-opening race this year.

He won a NCTS race at Sears Point in 1998 and has had some one-off Winston Cup races the past couple of years. In 1998, he qualified Jimmy Spencer’s car fifth at Sears Point, and started second at Watkins Glen in 1999.

“Boris is a road-course specialist,” Pressley said. “I have every confidence that Boris’s experience will make this worthwhile.”

Experience on road courses. That’s why these guys are here. Can that translate into a victory? Stay tuned.

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