In terms of winning the Sprint Cup championship this season, you'd be hard pressed to find a less important race than Sunday's Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Infineon is an anomaly on the Cup schedule -- it's one of two road courses the circuit visits -- and until NASCAR includes a winding road course that features left and right turns in the 10-race Chase for the Championship, most drivers will continue to treat it for what it is: a one-week diversion from oval racing in which drivers simply hope to avoid a points-sapping 20th place or worse finish.
"I'd be happy if we never went road course racing," says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who struggles on road courses.
"We need a road course in the Chase," says Denny Hamlin. "Either do that or do away with the road course events. The Chase needs to reflect the regular season schedule."
Agreed. Will NASCAR ever add Sonoma or Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International (the other road course on the schedule) to the Chase? Unlikely, but doing so would certainly add more meaning -- more meat -- to what transpires on Sunday.
Here are five drivers I'll be watching closely when the green flag drops in the thick of Northern California wine country:
1. Jeff Gordon
Gordon has long been considered the top road course racer in the sport, and for good reason: he has nine career wins at Infineon and Watkins Glen. Gordon, currently seventh in the standings, hasn't taken a checkered flag in 44 starts, but he's won two of the last seven races at Sonoma.
If Gordon is going to be a serious player in the Chase, then he can't afford to fall much further behind Hamlin, who already has five wins and therefore 50 bonus points for the start of the Chase. So even before the end of June, Gordon is in a 50-point hole to Hamlin. Sunday should be Gordon's best opportunity of the season to notch his first victory.
2. Tony Stewart
After he climbed out of his No. 14 Chevy at Pocono Raceway two weeks ago, Stewart told reporters, "For anybody who's looking for drama, start looking, because I can promise I'm going to start making the highlight reel the next couple of weeks."
Well, he didn't last week at Michigan. Stewart finished fifth and moved from 13th to 11th in the points. This hasn't been Stewart's finest season -- he's yet to reach Victory Lane -- but he has a history of coming on strong in the summer months because he likes hot, slick, slippery tracks.
Stewart's road course reputation is almost as golden as Gordon's. He has a combined seven wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen and he finished second in this race last season. Because Stewart's on the Chase bubble, this is a chance for him to put some distance between himself and other bubble drivers. He should make the most of it; he's my pick to take the checkers.
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
When Montoya arrived in NASCAR in 2007 from Formula One, it was expected that he'd dominate on road courses because F1 features road courses and he grew up on these winding tracks in Bogota, Columbia. He hasn't disappointed. He won this race in 2007 and has yet to finish outside the top 10.
Montoya is 20th in the standings. A year after making the Chase and being the early surprise of the playoffs -- he began the Chase with four straight top-5 finishes -- Montoya has been an afterthought for most of 2010. That should change, at least for a few hours, on Sunday.
4. Kasey Kahne
Before last season, Kahne had finished higher than 21st at Sonoma in five career starts. But then Kahne authored one of the great upsets in recent memory last June when he out-drove Stewart to win his first road course race.
Can he repeat? Unlikely, but after last Sunday's second-place run at Michigan he raved about the increase in horsepower in his new Ford engine, which could pay more dividends at Sonoma.
5. Denny Hamlin
Ever since Hamlin underwent reconstructive surgery on his left knee this spring he's been fretting about this race. Why? Because his left knee will be under more stress this weekend than at any other track due to the constant breaking he'll be doing with his left leg. If Hamlin, who finished fifth here last year, can pull off another top-5 run with his wounded knee, then we'll really know that the 2010 championship is his to lose.