PHILADELPHIA, PA - When its the first week of summer, the Sprint Cup Series makes its annual pilgrimage to the 1.99-mile, 12-turn Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrives to Sonoma this weekend with one thing finally behind him -- a four-year winless streak. To the delight of his millions of fans, Earnhardt Jr. made it back to victory lane last Sunday at Michigan, ending a string of 143 races without a win.
Earnhardt Jr. -- NASCAR's most popular driver -- is having one of his best season's in Sprint Cup so far. With the win at Michigan, Earnhardt Jr. moved to within four points of leader Matt Kenseth. He has scored 12 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races this year.
"We started off (the season) pretty quick and we have gotten quicker and quicker, especially these last couple weeks," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We'll just try to keep doing that and win the next race and see what happens."
Earnhardt Jr. is now focusing on more wins during the regular season to help him secure extra bonus points before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Eleven races remain before the Chase begins on September 16 at Chicagoland.
"I feel like we want to win some more races before the Chase starts, obviously," he said. "We'll think about where we are points-wise when that all happens after Richmond (September 8). But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself."
Sunday's race at Sonoma is the first of two road-course events in the series this season. Watkins Glen, NY is scheduled for August 12.
Earnhardt Jr. has struggled on the road courses, particularly Sonoma. His best finish in 12 races there is 11th, which came three times, most recently in 2010.
"We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top-ten at that place," he noted. "We have a lot to accomplish this year."
While Earnhardt Jr. is in a great shape right now to qualify for this year's Chase, several drivers, including four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, have their work cut out if they want to make it into the playoffs.
Gordon, who is Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, is currently 20th in the point standings. He trails 10th-place Brad Keselowski by 83 points. Gordon holds the series record for most wins on road courses with nine, including five at Sonoma. However, it's been six years since his last trip to victory lane at a road course.
"While we haven't had the same success we once had on road courses, I look forward to those events," Gordon said. "The road courses bring a different set of challenges, and those challenges are fun."
Gordon has finished ninth or better in the last six races at Sonoma, including a win in 2006. He placed second there one year ago.
Since he is presently in the top-20 in points, Gordon is in "wild card" territory, but he desperately needs a win to get back into playoff contention.
"When you're back where I'm at, you just have to win; it's the only chance you have," he said. "If we finally start to put it together, we'll make it in. And if we don't, we'll start working on it next year."
Carl Edwards is 11th in the rankings and trails Keselowski by just two points. Following Edwards in the standings are: Kyle Busch (12th), Ryan Newman (13th), Paul Menard (14th), Joey Logano (15th), Kasey Kahne (16th), Marcos Ambrose (17th), Jamie McMurray (18th) and Juan Pablo Montoya (19th).
Busch, Newman, Logano and Kahne have one victory each so far this season.
Ambrose, who is in his second season with Richard Petty Motorsports, won the most recent road-course race last August at Watkins Glen. The Australian claimed his maiden Sprint Cup victory there. He has also performed well at Sonoma, finishing sixth or better in the past three years there.
"I'm in a great team, and I'm in the best position I've ever been in the sport," Ambrose said. "Right now as I sit here mid-season, we still feel we have a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races. We have speed. We have to convert them into results."
Ambrose won his first pole in the series last Saturday at Michigan. He did so in record-setting fashion, turning a lap around the newly repaved two-mile track at 203.241 mph.
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, June 24. Race: Toyota/Save Mart 350. Site: Infineon Raceway. Track: 1.99-mile, 12-turn road course. Start time: 3 p.m.(ET). Laps: 110. Miles: 218.9. 2011 Winner: Kurt Busch. Television: TNT. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Satellite.
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