Just one look at the calendar and it's either the most loved or most dreaded weekend for most NASCAR Sprint Cup teams as they'll race at Infineon Raceway this Sunday for the Dodge/Save Mart 350.
After 15 straight weeks of a myriad of speedway ovals across the country, the Cup circuit will have to "heel and toe" and shift multiple times for four hours of stock car action in Sonoma, CA. For the wives and families, it means a scenic escape to wine valley while the racers will surely combat with the track and of course, each other.
This isn't your dad's road course nor is it Route 66, as this famed raceway will surely get the best of the most premier drivers of the Cup tour. Infineon seems to bring out the best of the best in terms of it race winners, with drivers like Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson being some of the top names who have found the keys to Victory Lane at this track.
One driver who knows a thing or two about getting around Infineon Raceway is former sports car champ and NASCAR veteran Tommy Kendall of SPEED. Having made six starts at this venue, including three respectable top-20 finishes, the La Canada, CA native shared his knowledge of racing around this 1.99 mile road course facility via phone and we talked about the Chase, the racers, and the track that the Cup gang will hit up on Sunday.
Rob Tiongson : More than ever, because the points system has changed and we have the Chase format that’s changed again, this race has a heightened feel to it for all the teams, especially for the drivers who are in the hunt for the last two wild card spots like Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger, and Greg Biffle. So how important is it for them to bring home their car in one piece?
Tommy Kendall : If your only shot is to get in is by a win, then it’s not important to bring it back home in one piece. It’s an interesting sort of racing and guys (like them), the ones that I keep in mind is to not get so caught up in what your situation is if you’re in the other person’s situation.
If you’re racing against a desperate person, whether you agree with them doing something crazy or not, it doesn’t do any good. You just got to figure out what are the chances of them doing something desperate.
And guys that really need to get a win, you can almost predict that. You know which guys they are. If you’re a guy on the bubble points wise, as much as you want to win the race, a second place is much better than getting caught up in a wreck and finishing 20th.
It’s easy to see that stuff in hindsight. The really good guys, the smart racers are able to keep track of that stuff while they’re racing and factor that into some race tracks.
RT : That’s a good point you put up there, TK, because of the fact that you’d rather go for a good finish or a safe finish if you don’t have the winning car or if you know for a fact that you can’t keep up with a road course expert or winger.
We have to consider the double file restarts that NASCAR implemented back in mid-2009. Just how crazy will it be on restarts on this track now that they’re double-wide?
TK : It’ll be pretty wild. You’re going to end up having a tough call between what is the ideal side. The inside for turn one is the outside for turn two. As I recall, towards the end of the race, they started opting for the right side. That’s a pretty good call because it makes it a little bit hair raising to go around on the outside of turn one and you need to trust the guy on the inside.
There’s only so much you can do. You literally can’t control all the variables. I guess probably that’s what the rules are all about. The more uncertain you can make it, the better the racing tends to be. At the end of the day, you can also work yourself into a tizzy trying to figure all that out. There’s no right or wrong approach, and you look at it in reverse in seeing this with strategies at the end of races.
The right call isn’t just with making the right call – the right call is somewhat dependent on how many people choose which strategy. And that’s going to come into play here with guys that stop early during a yellow. It’s kind of a moving target. In some ways, you get too caught up in trying to get the early angle. The simple way is just to go out and to hammer it up all the time.
It’s changed the nature of the races. You can’t always play the odds anymore. There’s so many wild cards now. It’s better for the entertainment but you don’t always get the best represented car win. You can’t have it both ways. As a purist, you always get the guys that do the best job and the best job car wins.
RT : Now, we have some road course wingers that are going to be competing this weekend, like Boris Said, who’s in James Finch’s car. Andy Pilgrim will be in the 46 car and then you have P.J. Jones and Brian Simo.
You’ve been in this position before, as I remember you drove Kyle Petty’s car back in 1991. When you’re in this position as a road course winger, like you’ve been hired for the weekend, what’s your expectation before you set foot to qualify your car?
TK : Well, it almost depends on whether they’re a top 35 car or not. That can make it pretty nerve wracking if you have to make it on speed. The reality is that a guy like Boris, he’s been in this situation before, he’s had a legit shot at the pole but at the end of the day, just because it’s only one lap, you just really can’t make the kind of lap to drive to be on the pole.
All you really need to do is make the race. A lot of times, you were in a really good car that was being crewed by guys that are kind of part-time or not full-time crew. It’s really hard to overcome and it’d ever get worse if it’s not a team that’s going to gain you or not lose you any spots on every stop. You might make five on the track and then lose eight in the pits.
I think those days are over when Dan Gurney came in and he won Riverside a number of times. The days where you have a huge advantage as a road course guy are just gone. The level of talent in the Cup Series is high as anywhere in the world. There are probably 15 really, really good road racers.
So, the objective is if you can dodge the bullet, run your best race and the team has a good day in the pits and you get a top-five, I think that’s probably got their day going.
RT : That’s really true. Well, Infineon isn’t a huge road course as opposed to Mid-Ohio or Road America, but as it’s 1.99 miles in length, it’s not your typical Sunday drive either, right?
TK : No, Sonoma used to probably be one of two of the most difficult courses in the country. The changes they have made to it since have taken away from it. Ironically, there used to be a really, really good place to pass.
The old turn seven, the Carousel turn seven, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. When the Cup cars ran there, you could actually pass outside on the hairpin due to a combination of the heavy cars and the pavement. I’ve never seen anywhere in the world where you can pass on the outside of a hairpin turn.
For whatever reason, they had that and unfortunately, they changed the course configuration. Now, you can’t even get back to the Carousel. You got more guys that are going for it in some places whereas before, the only good guys had the confidence to hang it out everywhere.
It’s kind of dumbed the course down a little bit in that way.
RT : I know in 1998, they changed the track a little bit and in a sense, they dumbed down the track. Do you think it was a good move by the SMI people or should they have left the track alone?
TK : Well, it’s always easy to say in hindsight. So, I think everybody would agree in hindsight that it probably hasn’t turned out as well as they would have hoped. It’s way more track position racing than it used to be.
Part of that is because of the way the cars have evolved, but part of it directly lies on the changed layout. The moment I heard about it, I knew it was a bad move. They did it with the best intentions but it was clear to me from the outset. The perfect storm, if you will, was the Carousel in turn 7, where they had this weird magic combination where you can pass a guy on the outside.
RT : With that in mind because of how turn seven isn’t quite the passing opportunity that it used to be, what are the other key areas that the drivers can focus on at Infineon this weekend?
TK : You still see guys that really understand the track and it’s having a car that doesn’t go away in the long run. Having the forward bite is the key thing. The same things apply (from most races) but they don’t quite apply as much as they used to. Again, even having the fastest car isn’t as important as having track position. You’re going to have guys that will really work hard getting their cars dialed in. It’ll come down to how the yellows fall.
RT : You definitely have to consider the yellow flags for this Sunday’s race because of the fact that yea, there’s probably going to be some crashes, maybe some drivers getting off course, or the almighty factor of debris cautions coming into play.
TK : Yea, I mean, it’s a big part of it. It’s always been a part of it and that’s how it goes. I think people figured out a few years ago that track position is paramount at road courses. You try to approach the race backwards. You figure out when the first person made the last stop generates an advantage.
So when everybody starts going in that direction, there becomes an opportunity to short pit. There will be guys that will be on the same set of tires and other people going on the other direction that say, “I’m going to run the opposite of that or stop halfway to the last pit and have two tires to make up a bunch of ground.”
That only works if it stays green. The reason why the other guys adopt that other strategy is if you’re under yellow and trapped (a lap down), you’re totally toasted.
Robby Gordon, when he was really hooked up a few years ago, was leading, and a number of guys started making their last stop. And I’m like, “Robby, what are you thinking?” Sure enough, the yellow came out, and he was toast.
It’s not a strategy for a leader to adopt. The leader has to be with a group or pretty close with a group that stops as soon as the pit window opens.
Then you have guys who are in the middle of the pack who have fast cars that will go the other way around. The only way this strategy will work is if there’s no yellow. There’s no absolute because if everybody was on one strategy, it opens up a new one and so on and so forth.
RT : Well, I remember last year, when we did the preview for Infineon, I asked you who your favorite would be for this race. And you pretty much nailed it with Jimmie Johnson, so congratulations to you a year later! (laughter) Now which racers do you think will contend this Sunday and do you have a particular dark horse or two that you think will break through?
TK : Jimmie Johnson holds a lot of people who make predictions look smart, so no one’s ever made money betting against Jimmie for any period of time really. You know, I think Jimmie and Marcos Ambrose, you’ve got to figure them as favorites. Brian Vickers sat on the pole there a couple of years ago so I guess, the fact that he hasn’t won a race in a year, he’d be a dark horse.
I think Allmendinger is really starting to find the speed there, so I guess I would make him a dark horse.
RT : Not a bad pick right there because of the fact that this year, he’s really starting to show his case of making the Chase this season. It’s a matter of time before that No. 43 team becomes a weekly contender like they used to be in the late ‘90s when Bobby Hamilton drove their Pontiacs for them.
Now do Cup races at Infineon particularly stand out for you, either as a participant or just from watching it on TV or at the track?
TK : I know as a competitor, everybody looks forward to coming just because it’s such a beautiful part of the country. It’s one of the races where literally all the wives come, you know, as they come to a handful of races all year.
You get a lot of criticism (about road course races), but I think that road races are some of the best races of the year. Like I said, there are so many factors that make it to some degree like a crap shoot. Ultimately, I think the driver probably has the most input (with their car) on road courses than they have anywhere else.