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Marcos Ambrose, Tony Stewart look for NASCAR Chase berth at Sonoma


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, the nuances of road course racing on the Cup and Nationwide series and the Chase hopes of road aces Marcos Ambrose and Tony Stewart highlight the storylines leading up to the Toyota-Save Mart 350.

Road course ride heights a big question at Sonoma

Don’t be surprised if you see Marcos Ambrose laying on the ground on pit road, sizing up his competition this weekend from the pavement up. Why? Blame NASCAR’s change in a ride height rule. Nobody knows what to expect.

“I think there's going to be different strategies going into this weekend,” Ambrose said. “I’m going to be one of the drivers that has a keen eye on the attitude of the car in pit lane, down the garage area, looking at what teams are doing to go fast. We're going to have to work it on the fly.”

For years, NASCAR mandated rules involving a race car’s minimum front end ride height — or the distance it sits above the ground — as a way to promote performance parity among teams. But over time, the rule became one of the front lines of expensive innovation as teams worked to find an ideal combination of shocks and springs that allowed the nose of a car to get low at speed while still passing technical inspection.

A lower car, especially on an oval, created more front downforce that, in turn, created more grip. More grip equaled more corner speed. But a car that was too low after qualifying or a race became a penalty — and an expensive mistake.

NASCAR eliminated the front end rule for 2014 as a way to introduce more aerodynamic stability to the cars. Now at its first road course race of the season, the ride height rule has many scratching their heads about how it will best be applied.

Road courses present a unique animal because of the corner curbing. With a car ride height too low, drivers face the prospect of either bottoming out the front end on the curbing or causing significant damage to a car’s nose section. However, the lower ride heights assist with high-speed cornering like those found in Sonoma’s Turns 8, 8A, 9 and 10.

It’s a wait-and-see approach, says Kurt Busch:

“We just have to watch out for the curbing. Is that car riding so low that it’ll drag the curbs differently? That’s one of my questions coming in to this weekend.”

Sonoma can fulfill Marcos Ambrose’s season  

Ambrose will be pulling out any and all stops to stay ahead of the competition this weekend because he’s firmly aware of the race’s importance, all thanks to NASCAR’s offseason championship qualifying format change. For Ambrose it’s win, get in and breathe a deep sigh of relief.

Oh, and make “The King” happy.

“I haven't made it to the Chase yet,” says Ambrose who is in his fourth season driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. “This format will give us our best chance to do it, if we can win a race at either Watkins Glen or Sonoma. We know that. It would really make our year, no doubt about it. It would certainly make our sponsors and Richard Petty very happy.”

Beyond appeasing his team owner, Ambrose is treating this season’s two Sprint Cup swings around road courses as make-or-break situations.

“We know our year is not complete if you can't make the Chase. It's like you haven't qualified for the finals.”

If the Australian road course ace that’s a two-time Cup victor at Watkins Glen does win, it will largely be about his improved ability to conserve rubber at the tire-hungry Sonoma. He says that lack of longevity has been his No. 1 downfall at the northern California track. 

“I haven't found the magic to make our tires last there,” Ambrose says. “Certainly it's the biggest question mark going into this year's race for me.”

Changing gears between tracks, and in the car, has Stewart positive about Sonoma weekend

The switch of scenery provided by NASCAR’s first road course race of the 2014 may just be what Tony Stewart needs. The three-time champ, still on the mend from a gruesome sprint car crash last August, has yet to win this year and has just five top-10 finishes in the season’s first 15 races.

Stewart was 11th last week at Michigan — and was admittedly pleased with the run — but isn’t afraid to admit that coming to Sonoma’s technical left-and-right challenge should be a boost. He’s a two-time Sonoma winner.

“There are some drivers that can’t adapt to it and haven’t learned it,” Stewart says of road course racing. “Then there are guys like myself that, from day one, have always really liked it and looked at the challenge of it as something really fun for us.”

For Stewart, an advantage at the road course track may come in his ability to work the transmission. In his team release this week, Stewart says his brief stints in sports car racing have left crew members impressed with his lack of damage on a gearbox during an event.

“There’s just something about the shifting side of it that’s been really natural to me, and it’s fun,” Stewart says. “I like having a different discipline to race on. I like having the opportunity to do something twice a year that we don’t get a shot at doing very often.

“It’s nice to get out of the box of what we do weekly and Sonoma is an awesome, awesome racetrack that has a lot of history. It’s very challenging and that’s why drivers like it.”

Sonoma winners tend to get out front early and often  

With nine different winners in the last nine seasons of Sprint Cup racing at Sonoma, it would seem that a path to victory for anyone at the 1.99-mile road course is more varied than the region’s elevation. Surprisingly, it’s been pretty consistent.

Since the nine-driver streak started, eight of the nine drivers who went on to take the race win led early and often. The only driver to win and lead fewer than 37 of the race’s scheduled 110 laps was Juan Pablo Montoya in 2007. The eight other drivers with wins since 2006 have averaged nearly 57 laps led.

Last season, a surprisingly dominant Martin Truex Jr. moved up from 14th to the lead after 41 laps and led 51 circuits en route to his first career road course win. Teammate Clint Bowyer was even more impressive the year before with a win after leading 71 laps. The most laps led by a race winner in the span, however, was Kyle Busch with 78 circuits out front in 2008.

Jeff Gordon, with wins in 2004 and ’06, is the most recent duplicate winner at the track.

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Nationwide Series makes fifth appearance at Road America

More than halfway across the country on Saturday the NASCAR Nationwide Series will also get in on the non-traditional right-and-left action at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc. The 50-lap race around the 4.048-mile, 14-corner track will be the fifth in series history at the well-regarded venue.

The race has somewhat become the new stomping ground for road course drivers from other disciplines looking to drop in and go for a NASCAR win — a fact likely equally attributable to the rising cost of Sprint Cup racing and the rising talent level of its drivers on road course tracks. Notably, Sunday’s race will include 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year and Tudor United Sports Car Championship Porsche driver Andy Lally as well as former Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Alex Tagliani.

Saturday’s race will feature a first time winner at the track after none of the previous four winners (Carl Edwards, Reed Sorenson, Nelson Piquet Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger) showed up on the race’s entry list. Josh Wise is the only driver scheduled to race both at Sonoma and Elkhart Lake this weekend.

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Photos by Action Sports, Inc.