Earnhardt Hopes To Become Road Warrior
Saturday, June 23rd 2007, 2:23 pm
By: News On 6
SONOMA, Calif. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt Jr. is generally an afterthought when people talk about NASCAR's best road racers.
That is something stock car racing's most popular driver would like to change Sunday in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway.
``This weekend is important to me because I'm sick of hearing people say 'Oh, he can't drive on a road course,''' Junior said.
It's not that Junior has been terrible on the tracks with left and right turns. While Earnhardt's best finishes in seven tries on Infineon's 1.99-mile circuit have been a pair of 11ths, he has a third, a fifth and a 10th at Watkins Glen International, the only other road course the Nextel Cup races.
But Earnhardt feels he has something to prove, particularly on this picturesque Northern California course with rolling hills and treacherous turns and elevation changes.
``We've been so close here before and have always come away with some sort of issue that takes away from what we can really do,'' said Earnhardt, who qualified third in the 43-car field. ``I want a top-10 so bad here, I can taste it.
``In 2005, we had a car I thought had a chance to win the Cup race, but we were trying a new transmission and it locked up on the first lap and I was in the wall. That was so disappointing _ and it was even worse when we fixed the car and I went back out and was still as fast as anyone in a car that was beat up and taped together.
``It was frustrating, but it was another sign that I can do this,'' Earnhardt added.
The Sonoma track is also the site of one of Earnhardt's scariest moments in a race car.
In 2004, while driving a Corvette in the Sunday warmup for an American Le Mans Series sports car race, Earnhardt lost control and slid backward into a concrete barrier, igniting a fire. He came away with second-degree burns to the inside of both thighs, his chin and neck.
The injuries forced Earnhardt to use Martin Truex, his teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc., as a relief driver in the next race and provided Junior some very uncomfortable days until the burns healed. But it wasn't the burns that upset Earnhardt the most.
``It broke my heart that I didn't get to race the Corvette here in 2004 because of the crash during the morning warmup,'' he said. ``I was angry because it cost that team a chance to race after they had been so good to me, but also because I was really learning a lot and had improved my road racing skills.''
Although pole-winner Jamie McMurray and solid road racer Robby Gordon are starting ahead of Junior on the grid, his biggest competition is likely to come from road course specialist Boris Said, who qualified fourth, and fifth-place Tony Stewart, a two-time Cup champion who has five road racing wins, two of them at Infineon.
``We've got a contender, for sure,'' Stewart said. ``You know it's going to be hard with Boris and Robby up there right now, and some other guys who might sneak up there later, we we'll have to wait and see. But we definitely have something we can work with.''
Some of the top contenders could come from the back of the field, with rookie Juan Pablo Montoya, one of the world's best road racers when he ran in Formula One and CART, coming off a disappointing 32nd-place qualifying effort, and nine-time road course winner Jeff Gordon and his teammate Jimmie Johnson starting 41st and 42nd because their cars failed to pass inspection Friday and were banned from qualifying.
``Where we're going to be starting, it's going to be a real challenge,'' Gordon said. ``It's hard to think about a win, but this is always a track position and pit strategy race anyway, so we'll see if we can work our way up there and get a good finish out of it.''
This race is the road course debut of NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow and Said has done more testing with the new car on the serpentine tracks than anyone.
``It's definitely taken some getting used to,'' Stewart said. ``We can drive these cars a lot faster than what these cars can go here. The old theory that you have to slow down to go faster, that's literally what you have to do with these new cars.''
Earnhardt said the biggest problem with the new COT may be passing other cars and just staying on track.
``It is pretty hard,'' he said. ``You just wait for people to mess up and try not to do the same, you know. I haven't really had a whole lot of success trying to anticipate a pass.
``I normally end up making a mistake then. My daddy always told me, 'You just stay on the asphalt _ try not to make a mistake and just stay on the asphalt. Everybody else is going to make mistakes and you will get into the top 10.'''