Looking For A Right Turn

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While the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir will sing the national anthem before Sunday’s Dodge/Save Mart 350k at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., Jimmy Buffett’s “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” would be an appropriate soundtrack for the 43 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers as they compete in the first of two road course races in 2004.

The winding, 1.99-mile layout in California’s wine country is the farthest venue NASCAR teams travel to, and for some drivers the trip only gets longer the moment they begin turning left and right. It’s a different kind of racing in a different kind of region, and it requires the appropriate mindset.

Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, has the right mindset and the track record to prove it.

In 10 career Nextel Cup starts at Sonoma and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) – the two road courses on the schedule – Stewart has a pole, two wins, a second, three other top-10s and only one finish lower than 15th. And outside of Nextel Cup, Stewart has continued to demonstrate his road racing abilities in sports cars. He has twice competed in the Rolex 24 Hour race at Daytona (Fla.), and almost won it this year, leading 355 of 526 laps with co-drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Andy Wallace to hold a commanding five-lap advantage before mechanical problems less than 20 minutes short of the finish ended their shot at victory.

Sonoma marks Stewart’s return to road racing since that disappointment at Daytona Feb. 1. And while the sports car Stewart drove at Daytona differs greatly from his Joe Gibbs Racing-prepared Home Depot Chevrolet, it gives him a leg up on the majority of his counterparts whose last road course race came at Watkins Glen last August. Further adding to Stewart’s odds this weekend was a successful test at Virginia International Raceway in Alton on June 8. There, the team shook down Chassis No. 48 – the same car that delivered the team’s two road course victories and road course pole – while Stewart further polished his road racing skills.
Hungry to earn his first victory of 2004 and the 18th of his career, Stewart is well-prepared for the rigors of this weekend’s road course
event in Sonoma.

Stewart tested June 8 at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) in preparation for the Dodge/Save Mart 350k.

“It was just good to go to VIR for the day, and if nothing else, get back in the mode of downshifting, upshifting and all the other techniques of road course racing," Stewart said. "Obviously, things are different on a road course. You don’t use the clutch when you’re shifting. You’re using a heel and toe braking technique. And after running a bunch of ovals, it’s important to get used to doing those things again.”

Infineon Raceway may be one of the most challenging tracks on the Nextel Cup Series schedule as Stewart explains.

“Ever since they redesigned it (prior to the 2002 race), going into turn one is different from where you pass the start/finish line. It’s a lot harder to get up the hill than it used to be, but it’s still the same classic, off-camber, blind, right-hand corner at the top of the hill –which has always been one of my favorite spots on the track. Then you go into the two esses that are uphill, and after that you go over a blind peak and down another hill to the new section of the track – where you can actually run over top of the rumple strips and get right up next to the retaining wall. You’ve got another hairpin corner to the right, and then you start in the old classic section of the esses, but the geography around that area has changed. They opened it up and made it more fan friendly, but the track in that section is still the same. The biggest and most critical passing area is going into turn 11. Then you have to get up off that corner – that’s a big acceleration corner – and it’s probably one of the hardest parts in getting around there.”

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