SONOMA, Calif. - It will take a lot more than a fast car, strong engine and bulletproof transmission to survive today's Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway, much less win it.
"I think staying on (the) race course is going to be the key to (today's) race," Jeff Gordon said.
The 1.99-mile road course in the heart of Napa Valley wine country has 11 turns and several elevation changes. New asphalt was supposed to give the picturesque course a lot of grip, but it's turned most of it into a giant slip-and-slide.
Many drivers had troubles during pole qualifying, including Gordon. He got all four wheels off course in the 10th turn. He never cracked the throttle, though, and he set the track record at 94.303 mph.
"This has always been a track that's not an easy track," he said after winning his fourth pole position at the first of two road course venues on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. "It's very finicky. You can't really max-brake anywhere. You can't attack the racetrack. You have to have a lot of patience. Today, the higher grip level gave you that feeling that you could attack a little bit more. Every time you did, it reached out and grabbed you."
A couple drivers have a diagram of the course taped to their dashboard. Another has a compass, with joking instructions to head north if he gets lost.
While some of those tricks trigger laughter, trying to stay on the pavement is no laughing matter.
Defending race winner Robby Gordon slipped during his qualifying run; current points leader Jimmie Johnson also spun out. So did Ricky Craven, Brian Vickers and Scott Riggs.
Jeff Gordon said his pole position will be important today because the new pavement makes it even harder to pass.
"It's already tough to pass," he said. "There are only two passing zones at this track: Going into Turn 7 and going into Turn 11. With the new surface and being able to driving in so deep because of the good grip under braking, I think it's going to be even harder to pass."
That doesn't bode well for the other Gordon, who will start 24th. While both Gordons, who aren't related, are considered the favorites for today's race (3:30 p.m., FOX-Ch. 54), neither is fond of the other. A year ago, Robby Gordon passed his teammate, Kevin Harvick, racing back to the caution flag, to gain track position and the victory. After the race, Jeff Gordon blasted Robby.
"But you have to give credit where credit is due. On the road courses, he would be a rival," Jeff Gordon said.
And what about Robby Gordon's chances to move from 24th and into contention?
"There are only two places to pass here," Jeff Gordon said. "So he'll have to be aggressive, which already puts you at risk. And then you're going to have to be risky in your pit strategy. Those factors work against you but it doesn't make it impossible."