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Drivers weigh in on Watkins Glen vs. Infineon

August 13, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- They are two very different tracks, unique in so many ways.

But as the only two road-course venues currently on NASCAR's Sprint Cup schedule, Watkins Glen International and Infineon Raceway also are intertwined in a way that leaves them open to inevitable and endless comparison by the drivers who must negotiate their many tricky turns each year.

Several talked about the differences between the tracks in between practice sessions Friday at Watkins Glen. The bottom line? Sonoma, with several more turns no matter how they are counted over its 1.99-mile layout, has almost a short-track feel to it, where beating and banging on each other remains a requisite as cars fight constantly for track position. Watkins Glen, with its seven turns that include the infamous esses and the challenging inner-loop Bus Stop stretched over 2.45 miles, is much more wide open with long straightaways that demand as much speed as man and machine can muster.

Jeff Gordon during Friday's practice at Watkins Glen. (Getty Images)

"You've got to be comfortable with turning right, and really being able to push the car very aggressively."

--JEFF GORDON

Perhaps no driver is more qualified to discuss the qualities of the two tracks than four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who has five career wins at Infineon (three more than anyone else) and also has won four times at Watkins Glen (second only to the five victories earned by Tony Stewart at the facility).

"As a driver, you've got to be very comfortable with the downshifts," Gordon said of The Glen. "You've got to be comfortable with turning right, and really being able to push the car very aggressively. This track is a lot different than Sonoma. This track you've got to be very aggressive and it's a fast race track, where Sonoma is much more of a finesse track and it's much more about not going off-track and not over-attacking the corners. Here, it's exactly the opposite. I think you've really got to attack these corners -- and when you attack the corners here, you've got to be careful not to make a mistake with the downshifts or with getting too much brake in it. And then you've also got to have a really good spring-and-shock package because downforce is important -- because it is such a fast race track. So that body pitch and attitude are important.

"To me, this is really a combination of car and driver. And when you figure out that side of it -- the car especially -- it's a little easier on the driver and it allows you to attack this race track the way you need to."

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It also can be a matter of how you define finesse. Marcos Ambrose, who has yet to win a Cup race but has three Nationwide Series victories at Watkins Glen and has been a consistent contender at Infineon, agreed with Gordon in principle but actually said somewhat the opposite.

"Sonoma's like a bullring, you know? You're in everybody's face all day; you've got to knock them around to try and pass," Ambrose said. "You're bouncing off curbs and the corners are shorter, the track's lacking grip, in the corners there's not a lot of banking -- so it's really a difficult place to get around. You never use top gear. It's all about low speed and forward drive, and just trying to pass without damaging your car too much.

"This place is different. It's more about finesse. It's more about flying the car speed. You use third and fourth gear a lot going around this place. It's really about managing tires; it's about carrying momentum around the whole track. ... I like this place, but I like Sonoma, too. They're both very unique as far as road racing goes, and I think they give us a nice balance between the two."

Juan Montoya, whose only two career Cup wins have come on the pair of road courses (at Infineon in 2007 and at Watkins Glen in 2010), said he prefers the layout he will be attacking this Sunday.

"It flows a little more," he said of the Watkins Glen configuration. "The corners are a little faster. Eighty percent of Sonoma, you are in first or second gear and it is short gears. This place, the esses up here are fast. We are doing probably 180 miles an hour when we brake into the Bus Stop, you know what I mean?

"You are hauling ass in this place and it's fun. I think the driver can do more sliding and things. You can run side-by-side easier here. It's just my personal preference."

Gordon said the nature of races on both road courses has been drastically altered in recent years by the introduction of double-file restarts in NASCAR. He added that he believes that has helped make road-course events more popular with fans.

"As the race progresses, everybody gets more aggressive," Gordon said. "But when you have double-file restarts in the late stages of the race, it definitely presents opportunity for a lot more bumping and aggressive moves. I know at Sonoma, you could run four or five corners side-by-side before it ever gets single file again after a restart. So there are a lot of opportunities for guys to create a lot of action. It's exciting and I think the fans certainly enjoy that.

"Here at Watkins Glen, I think while that is possible, and it will happen, you have to get narrowed down once you get to the esses -- but it does fan back out as you get into the inner loop. So it could very well present some of the same things for great racing action as far as getting heated and causing controversy and seeing the emotions of the drivers flair during and after the race."

Infineon: History | Winners WGI: History | Winners Sound Off: Both tracks are unique