Road course racing seems to bring out an array of emotion each time NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers and teams travel to Sonoma or Watkins Glen.
Unlike the high-banked speedways that make up the majority of the 36 races on the Cup schedule, the twisting left and right turns can give the very best in the business their fair share of headaches.
Two drivers possibly the most surprised at Sonoma this past Sunday were race winner Clint Bowyer and eighth-place driver Marcos Ambrose.
Bowyer, a farm boy from Kansas who openly admits road courses are a challenge, high-fived his crew in victory, while Ambrose, a noted road racer who honed his talents in his native Australia before coming to the United States, struggled for an eighth-place finish.
Indeed, Bowyer sets his sights on winning every race he enters. But was his name mentioned among those such as Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon or even Kurt Busch as Sonoma favorites? He would probably say no.
To get his first win with Michael Waltrip Racing on a road course was an unexpected surprise. But he was strong from the start of the 110-lap race.
The move to MWR is obviously beginning to pay off.
“I’m super excited for everybody involved to be in victory lane with this group so early in the season. It’s a dream come true,” Bowyer said. “I’m very proud of all our partners, especially everybody at MWR.
“To switch teams like I did was a huge risk and it was obviously a chance for me to showcase my talents. I’m proud of everybody back home at the shop. Thank you, guys, for building us real good race cars.”
It’s June and Bowyer can’t help but think of finding his place among the 12 drivers eligible for the Chase following the Richmond race on Sept. 8.
“This is big for our confidence level, for this team and for the Chase,” Bowyer said. “This is a young organization that’s going to be in this sport a long time, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
That Ambrose won the pole at Sonoma was no surprise, as his outings are always impressive on the road courses.
“I put a lot of effort into this race and everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports and the whole Stanley team have been rock solid behind me for the road course program,” Ambrose said after securing the pole. “Ford Racing has done a lot of hard work here too and we brought a brand new hot rod for this race and it is even better than what we had here last year.
“I am glad we could convert the effort into a great result with this pole. You just have to be really precise with your marks and very aggressive and carry momentum through these tight corners.”
Petty felt confident Ambrose would lead the field after the green flag fell for the race.
“Well, winning the pole this week was not as unexpected as what last week was (at Michigan),” Petty said. “I tried to tell him that and I didn’t want to put any pressure on him for when he did come out here. I guess everything went good.
“Anytime you can sit on the pole it is good but the big deal now is getting ready for the race. I think we won the race here with Richard Petty Motorsports a couple three years ago, so some of the guys know how to win here also.
“We have a driver we think that gave one of them away out here so it is time he got one back for us.”
Petty won 200 races during his career, including four on the now defunct Riverside International Raceway.
“I was not very smooth, that is for sure,” Petty said. “I came from dirt tracks so when I had a chance to run into the dirt at Riverside, I did.
“They had all those big cement deals and stuff that would keep me from running off in the dirt. The fastest way around any race track is on the race track.
“Riverside was completely different circumstances, a different race track and I had to do what I thought I had to do at that time to win the race. I always liked Riverside because it had high speed and low speed too. We did pretty good and won a few races there.
“We ran a lot of cars that would move around. Today, these cars are strictly race cars and have to stay on the race track. There is nobody better at that than Marcos.”
Ambrose and his team tested at Sonoma last month and felt confident they could win.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.
“We really missed it. I just feel bad for my Stanley team,” said Ambrose, whose Ford faded badly during long runs. “We missed it bad and we did good to recover and get a top 10 out of it. We will take it and move on.
“We got the pole and had a lot of speed; we just missed it for the race. We were slow. It was just terrible. We had no speed in the car and we paid the price.”
Unlike Bowyer, Ambrose isn’t concentrating on points. Strong top-five finishes during the second half of the season will help to improve his 16th-place position.
“I’m not thinking about the Chase or championships or what not. I am out there to try to do the best I can every single weekend,” Ambrose said. “The points will take care of themselves if you do your job well.
“That being said, we have got speed, there is no doubt about that. We had trouble at the start of the year converting our speed into good results. I am focused on the results and the championship will take care of itself if you do your job right.”
This weekend, it’s back to turning left on the oval at Kentucky Speedway.
Then there are four more oval track races at Daytona, New Hampshire Indianapolis and Pocono. Then it’s on to Watkins Glen on Aug. 12 for the next road-course test – which will be highly welcome for the select few who are established masters.