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Sonoma to pose true road test

It is a sign of the expansion of NASCAR as much as a challenge for the drivers. It's one of the rare moments when stock car racers and crews leave the comfort of their southeastern homesteads and engage in that curious style of racing that once seemed made only for drivers with funny names. It's a road race, and it's way out west, in the hills of Sonoma, Calif. That's where Sears Point International Raceway is located, site of today's third annual Banquet Frozen Foods 300, the first road race of the Winston Cup season.

"It's like being turned loose in the sandbox with great toys to play with," said Rusty Wallace. "I really like it, and it provides a real change from the oval tracks we run on everywhere else."

While Wallace may enjoy the road courses, making the trip across the country may at times seem more trouble than it's worth for others. For most racing teams, it means loading up the 18-wheelers and hiring an extra driver to make the nearly 3,000-mile journey. It's the one time when the guys driving the rigs put down a lot more miles than the race car drivers on Sunday.

Then, once you get there, there's the matter of the road course itself, a virtual puzzle still for many Winston Cup drivers, even though they've been coming to Sonoma for the past two years. Turning right is still kind of foreign, i.e.: Europe, where road racing is the predominant racing form. Guys like Luyendyk, Jourdain, and Fittipaldi road race, not Gants, Waltrips and Bodines.

To that end, the Hendrick Motorsports crew has nicknamed drivers Ken Schrader "Emmo" and Ricky Rudd "Little Al" after more skilled road racing drivers Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. "If I don't tell myself that I feel like Emmo in the car, then I'm in really bad shape," said Schrader. "So that's what I tell myself."

Added Wallace: "If you go into an event like this and you don't feel comfortable with the way you get around the track or the way your car is set up, you're in real trouble and you're going to have a long weekend. The biggest thing I learned was how to have fun driving one of these big, heavy cars around a road course."

As for the actual driving, you can bet several drivers took some extra practice laps this week to make the adjustment to the road course. There are little things that the drivers have to learn again, such as where to shift on the track.

"It may sound funny, but it's easy to forget exactly where to shift on the track since we only come out here once a year," Rudd said. "Kenny forgot in a couple of places."

Welcome back: Geoff Bodine will be back inside his red and white No. 11 Ford Thunderbird today. He had been recovering from injuries suffered during practice for The Winston in May. Tommy Ellis had been his replacement.

Kyle Petty, who broke his thigh during a 20-car crash at the Winston 500 at Talladega in May, is still recuperating and isn't expected back in his black No. 42 racer for a few more weeks.

Under the gun: Not that anyone is trying to put extra pressure on Jimmy Spencer at Sonoma, but the Banquet Frozen Foods people are anxious for Spencer to do well. After all, Banquet is sponsoring Spencer's car and the race.

Back to the drawing board: Mark Martin has had a bit of trouble acclimating himself with the road course at Sonoma. During practice, he crashed in the first turn, which is a fast, uphill right turn, and tore up his Ford Thunderbird. He suffered only a bruised right shoulder and is expected to drive today with it taped.

Wallace or Rudd?: Figuring out the favorites for the Sonoma race is not hard. In its two-year history, Wallace and Rudd have dominated the event.

Wallace won the pole in 1989 and Rudd won the race. In 1990, Rudd took the pole and Wallace won. In fact, Rudd or Wallace has won the last eight Winston Cup road races. Wallace leads 5-3.

"Rusty can win the pole _ as long as our little deal continues," Rudd joked.

TODAY'S RACE

Race: Banquet Frozen Foods 300.

Track: 2.52-mile Sears Point International Raceway, Sonoma, Calif.

Green flag: 3 p.m.

Distance: 74 laps (187 miles).

TV: Live on ESPN.

Radio: WQYK-1010.

Defending champ: Rusty Wallace.

Pole-sitter: Ricky Rudd

Purse: $600,435.

Notes: After driving on nothing but ovals, Winston Cup drivers tackle their first road course of the season. Ricky Rudd, second in the points standings, looks to get back on track here. Winless since Darlington in early April, Rudd holds the track race and qualifying records. He also won here two years ago and started on the pole last year.

Fry's pick: Dale Earnhardt.

WINSTON CUP

LEADERS

Driver Pts W

1. Dale Earnhardt 1,716 2

2. Ricky Rudd 1,634 1

3. Darrell Waltrip 1,574 1

4. Harry Gant 1,520 1

5. Ken Schrader 1,511 2

6. Ernie Irvan 1,494 1

7. Davey Allison 1,457 1

8. Morgan Shepherd 1,400

9. Michael Waltrip 1,383

10. Mark Martin 1,377

Up next:WEDDINGS

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