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Aumann: Regulars, ringers put on a show at Infineon in '03

June 24, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Said, Fellows dominated early; R.Gordon's controversial pass gave him the win

When the Cup Series heads for one of the two road courses on the schedule, talk always seems to turn to the "road course ringers," the drivers with road course experience to whom team owners turn when there are as many right turns as left.

That's been the case since NASCAR began running road courses. Dan Gurney was a dominating force as a road course stand-in at Riverside in the 1960s. And the last win by a driver considered a road course ringer was Mark Donohue's victory at Riverside in 1973.

Dodge/Save Mart 350

Results
Pos.DriverMake
2.Jeff Gordon Chevrolet
3.Kevin Harvick Chevrolet
4.Bill Elliott Dodge
5.Ryan Newman Dodge

Despite what seems to be an obvious lack of success since then, road course ringers remain prevalent at the track now known as Infineon Raceway, which was added to the Cup schedule in 1989. The race was somewhat unusual for several years, in that it also counted toward the Winston West championship until 1997. So the field also included West Coast short-track standouts.

One of the top Trans-Am drivers of the day -- Darin Brassfield -- was exceptionally good there, eventually winning four consecutive Trans-Am races at Sonoma. The Los Gatos, Calif., native entered a Chevrolet and finished a credible 22nd in his 1989 Cup debut.

Two of the other early Infineon ringers were Tommy Kendall and Irv Hoerr. Kendall, who won four Trans-Am championships, was in contention both in 1990 and 1991, crashing while leading in the first and finishing 18th after spending 12 laps in the lead in the second. Hoerr's best Sonoma finish came in 1990, when he started 28th and finished eighth.

But perhaps the zenith of the road course ringer came in the 2003 Dodge/Save Mart 350, when no fewer than five stand-in drivers made the show, and two -- Boris Said and Ron Fellows -- started in the first two rows, with Said having won the pole. Both had full-time crews in the pits, and were in equipment good enough to challenge the Cup regulars.

Said was subbing for Mike Wallace, who had taken over the No. 01 Pontiac after Jerry Nadeau was seriously injured at Richmond. Fellows was hired to replace Jeff Green in the No. 1 Chevrolet. Green had been effectively traded from Richard Childress Racing to Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Steve Park earlier in the season.

Said led the first lap but Robby Gordon got by on the second circuit, leaving Said to battle Fellows, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick for the runner-up position for much of the first half of the event. Fellows eventually got past Said and acquired the lead when Robby Gordon pitted.

When the stops cycled back around, Fellows was third behind Robby Gordon and Harvick, but pulled off a daring three-wide maneuver under braking in the Turn 11 hairpin just as Harvick was going to the inside of Gordon, allowing Fellows to assume the lead on Lap 57.

However, both road course ringers eventually succumbed to pit road woes. Fellows' chances at victory went awry shortly thereafter when he left pit road with a wrench still attached to his car. And Said was caught out by faulty pit strategy. He eventually finished sixth, one position better than Fellows.

The race is perhaps best known for a controversial pass under caution that handed the win to Robby Gordon. In the pre-race drivers meeting, Gordon asked several times about racing to the start/finish line under a waving yellow flag. And he did just that, passing a surprised Harvick -- his RCR teammate -- when Christian Fittipaldi hit a tire barrier and brought out a yellow on Lap 71.

The move was deemed legal by NASCAR but not by the competition.

"Really, that's what won him the race," said Jeff Gordon, who finished second. "You just don't do that. You don't pass a guy under caution. He won the race fair and square except for that move right there. What he did can be done, but there's not going to be too many guys in that garage area who are going to have too much respect for him."

"This isn't about anyone breaking a NASCAR rule, because it was made clear in the driver's meeting that you could pass under yellow," Harvick said a day later. "But it was a cheap move on Robby's part. I had my hand out the window to let him know I was checking up. Then I saw him coming, and coming fast."

An unrepentant Robby Gordon laughed all the way to the bank, since the winner's share paid $204,512.

"Do you think I really care what Jeff Gordon says?" Robby said. "He's won enough races. I guess he just doesn't like it when someone comes in and rains on his parade a little bit. Kevin Harvick may be mad at me, but it is what it is. I don't see what Jeff Gordon has to do with this."

Scott Pruett finished 34th, Fittipaldi 40th and Japanese driver Hideo Fukuyama 43rd. One driver who had hoped to make his Cup debut in that race -- Paul Menard -- failed to qualify.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.