Brett Poirier · Thursday June 23, 2011
Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have dominated NASCAR’s road course races for the majority of their Sprint Cup careers. From 1998-2006, the two drivers combined to win 13 of the 18 road course races. Gordon and Stewart were on a different level than their competition, but as the numbers have shown in the last four seasons, the competition has caught up.
Gordon hasn’t won on a road course since 2006 and Stewart has two wins, but both came at Watkins Glen. During that same span, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kyle Busch each have a pair of road course victories and names like Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose have crept into the fray of consistent contenders, and have outperformed Gordon and Stewart on numerous occasions in recent years.
The tides are changing and the list of capable road course winners continues to grow. It’s no longer just two guys that can get it done. Here are a host of contenders for Sunday’s race at Infineon.
Two years ago, the thought of picking Jimmie Johnson at a road course over Stewart or Gordon seemed ludicrous. But anyone that has watched the last two races there knows why Johnson is the better pick this weekend. He might not have been faster than Ambrose last season, but he was better than everyone else. Johnson was 1st and 4th in his last two starts at Infineon and has led more laps (55) than any other driver. Don’t be surprised if Johnson picks up his second career road course victory on Sunday.
While Jeff Gordon hasn’t picked up a road course victory since 2006, he is still reeling off the top-10 finishes. Johnson may have a better shot at winning on Sunday, but Gordon can be counted on for a solid run. Along with five wins, he has 14 top-10 finishes in 18 starts in wine country. He has led more laps (437) there than any other active driver, but hasn’t led in the last two races.
Marcos Ambrose was one mental error away from winning his first Sprint Cup race last year at Infineon. Who knew it was a bad idea to shut the engine off while going uphill? If Ambrose and his team don’t beat themselves this weekend, they have to be the favorites to win. While Gordon and Stewart used to set the bar at road courses, it is now Ambrose, and it is only a matter of time before he ends up victory lane. He has been 3rd and 6th (could have been first) in his last two starts. For the first time all season, a mid-level fantasy driver will enter as the man to beat. Don’t keep this guy out of your lineup, even if they start him a lap down.
Another driver with a road course background that should excel this weekend is Juan Pablo Montoya. He outraced Ambrose in the final laps at Watkins Glen last fall, which is really saying something. He also has a pair of top-10 finishes in his last two starts at Infineon. Infineon rewards aggressive drivers because of how difficult it is to pass and no one is more aggressive than the ex-Formula One driver. Ambrose is the favorite, but Montoya can be counted on for a solid finish and if he is there at the end, don’t count him out.
Another wild card mid-level pick is A.J. Allmendinger. He is seventh and 13th in his last two starts at Infineon and was fourth last season at Watkins Glen. This guy is an underrated driver period, but especially on the road courses where he has consistently performed well.
The bottom-level fantasy category is always intriguing at road courses because it’s usually filled with road course ringers. Guys like Boris Said, Ron Fellows, Max Papis and Scott Pruett have all performed well in the past, but there is high risk, high reward with these ringers. First, they must qualify a car they barely know on time. Second, a lot of times these drivers are jumping into low-budget equipment, and the car doesn’t hold up for the distance. Thirdly, there are usually Sprint Cup regulars in the low-level that can do just as good of a job without the risk. Ambrose and Paul Menard are examples from recent years.
The safest pick this weekend is Menard, but I’m going to suggest taking a risk and going with Said. He will drive for Phoenix Racing this weekend. Landon Cassill drove to a 12th-place finish last weekend at Michigan. Said will be in decent equipment with a team that at least attempts to runs all of the laps each week. Last year, Said was eighth at Infineon. He has five top-10 finishes in his last 11 starts there.
Matt Kenseth was riding high as a Fantasy Insider pick last weekend at Michigan, but he will be relegated to the bench at Infineon. Kenseth has struggled at road courses since he entered the series in 2000. This team will be just trying to survive the weekend. Kenseth has just one top-10 finish in 11 starts and an average finish of 22nd.
While Kenseth has been bad at Infineon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been worse. He is yet to record a top-10 at the track in the same amount of starts as Kenseth. Last year, he recorded his best ever finish of 11th, but with mid-level drivers like Ambrose and Montoya available, don’t bother wasting a pick this weekend on Earnhardt.
Until next week, good luck my friends!
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