By Andrew Charman

This weekend sees the NASCAR circus heading to California and a challenge the Nextel Cup competitors face only twice a year - turning right...

Sunday's race is at Infineon Raceway, Sonoma, although many know the venue better as Sears Point, a challenging 2-mile 10-turn track and one of only two road courses on the calendar - the other being former Grand Prix track Watkins Glen in August. Both require skills very different to those needed on the ovals, and some teams try to make the most of this by entering cars for road-course specialists.

This year there are six 'ringers' in the entry for Sonoma, and while three of them aren't serious contenders for race success the other three can't be ignored. Of the trio Klaus Graf is probably the outsider. The 32-year old German has been trying to break into NASCAR after a successful circuit career that even saw him leading the Le Mans 24-hours at one point. And he might have what it takes - he made his stock car debut in April at Nashville, led the race and finished third. Graf will drive the #59 Dodge of Bam Racing.

Scott Pruett will be familiar to anyone who has followed ChampCars, but of the six ringers he also has the most Nextel Cup experience. A former Trans-Am champion and currently leading the Grand-Am sports car series, 44-year old Pruett will drive the #39 Ganassi Dodge in Target colours.

The one they'll all be watching though is Boris Said. He took the pole last season, earning a starting spot in this year's Budweiser Shootout on one of the most daunting speedways of all, Daytona. Said, 41, will drive the #36 Centrix Financial Chevrolet for MB2/MBV Motorsports, just like he did last year, and he will be aiming to improve on a 2003 sixth-place finish in what will be his 10th points-counting Cup race. Said has bigger aims however - a Nextel Cup season. "This is what I wait for and this is what I would love to do full time," Said said this week. "Winning the pole at Infineon ranks as one of my biggest accomplishments in racing (and) each time I get to drive in a Cup race, it's like a little kid having another Christmas."

Yet there's one driver among the regular Cup field that everyone will fear - no surprise really as Robby Gordon has plenty of road course experience too from his ChampCar days. Gordon swept both road-course races last season though the Sonoma success came amid controversy. Other drivers slammed him for racing back to the yellow under caution on his way to the win at the Dodge/Save Mart 350. Runner-up and namesake Jeff Gordon argued that Robby passed team-mate Kevin Harvick under a yellow flag that NASCAR said was perfectly legal. Gordon will want the win badly - he's having a poor season and needs to rack up some points. "This weekend is going to be important for Team Cingular," Gordon said, "because it could help us move up a bit in the standings, where some of the other drivers currently ranked higher than us tend to struggle on road courses.
"So, if everything plays in our favour, we could make up 40 to 50 points on some of those top guys right now. If you look at two races like that and add them together, with Watkins Glen coming up, that could mean almost 100 additional points from where we are right now."

As far as the title contenders are concerned, this weekend could make a big difference to their fortunes. The points race changed last weekend at Michigan when Jimmie Johnson moved ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jnr, but neither are acknowledged road course stars. This year, however, Earnhardt is not fazed by a trip to Sonoma. "Write this down - I'm excited about going to a road course," he said this week. "Hard to believe, right? We've come a long way on the road courses. ... I used to dread certain tracks on the schedule, but the team is getting better all the time and I feel a lot more comfortable at most of the places I used to hate."

We can't end this preview without mentioning NASCAR's kid of the moment, Kasey Kahne. He took yet another second place last week - four laps more and most people think it would been his first win. Crucially he moved to within 399 points of the leader, and when the top runners are creamed off into a final 10-race battle for the title in September, all those within 400 points will be included. We don't know anything about Kahne's potential for success on road courses - but no-one's writing him out of the script...

The race gets underway around 4pm Eastern Time on Sunday, 9pm in the UK. Check back to for qualifying times and a full race report.


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