The Callahan Report: Skinner and Gordon should shine at Sears Point

25 June 1999

By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel
SONOMA, CA--The stars of NASCAR head to Sears Point Raceway this weekend. Twice each year, these heroes of speed head to the road courses to display their braking and cornering skills. It is an exciting departure from the already action-packed oval track racing season.

Mike Skinner, who has been knocking at the door to victory lane for the past two seasons, could finally find the key this weekend. Skinner had the road race at Watkins Glen in his back pocket last year, only to see his lead gobbled up by the ever-dominant Jeff Gordon in the waning laps of the race. Skinner is smarter than he was last year. He learns more about his competition each time he takes to a track on the NASCAR circuit. Sears Point could mark the first points-paying victory for the likeable Skinner.

Skinner will be threatened, but his challengers should be few. His team has to have a perfect weekend in order to win this race. Skinner's team, led by Crew Chief Larry McReynolds, is more than capable of pulling off an error free performance.

One of Skinner's biggest challengers will be the defending champion at Sears Point, Jeff Gordon. The three time Winston Cup champion has the best all-around driving skills in all of NASCAR. Year after year, Gordon impresses the fans and racing veterans with his capabilities. Gordon thrives on the challenges presented by a road-racing course. His team rises with him to the challenge. Expect more of the same from Jeff Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors this weekend at Sonoma. Gordon has all that is required to take back-to-back wins at Sears Point.

There are tracks that fit the styles of some drivers better than others. Bobby Hamilton, normally known for his short track skills, is especially good on road courses. He knows how to brake appropriately, to move through the pack. Hamilton attacks road courses like he attacks Martinsville, a track where he has been a proven winner. He finished second to Gordon at Sears Point last year. Brakes are precious. Hamilton will use his talent of "calculated abuse of brakes" to be a front runner at Sears Point. He may be all the way in front.

Bobby Labonte continues to be "on-a-roll." The 35-year-old veteran from Texas has won twice in the last three weekends. He is not too shabby on the curves either. Labonte proved his skills last year at Sears Point with a ninth place starting spot. He charged to a third place finish. Expect his team to play a big part in putting Labonte towards the top this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing Team is proving to be one of the masters at getting the best from everyone within the organization. Jimmy Makar, the crew chief for Labonte, received much of the credit for Labonte's recent success. With the team approach and Labonte's driving skill, it would not be a surprise to see Bobby grab a third win in four weeks.

Another driver who knows how to move through traffic on a road course is Mark Martin. The red, white, and blue colors of the Valvoline car could easily be in victory lane come Sunday afternoon. Martin impressed everyone with his performance at Sears Point a year ago. He bull-dozed his way from 26th starting spot to finish in 6th. Based on that performance, Martin is also considered a favorite at Sonoma.

Another well known hard-charger on the road courses is Rusty Wallace. He is still sore from the big bump he took at Pocono last weekend, but great drivers tend to put their pain behind them when the green flag drops. Wallace can be a threat to win on a road course, no matter where he starts. Last year for instance, Wallace started this race from the 28th spot on the grid. He was ahead of almost everyone at the end with a fifth place finish. Wallace is a strong favorite in the California sunshine Sunday.

For a dark horse pick, look to sophomore Kenny Irwin. He has had moments of greatness this year that were overshadowed by controversy. He finished third at Daytona only to be scrutinized by the media for a close call with his teammate, Dale Jarrett. Irwin is looking for another strong finish at Sears Point this year, to follow up on his ninth place finish in 1998. Irwin is a young man with talent on the curves.

The NASCAR teams take the green flag at 4:00 p.m. Sunday. The race will be televised live on ESPN.

Editors Note: For hundreds of hot racing photos and racing art, be sure to visit The Racing ImageGalleries and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.

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