The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits the first of its two road races this year with Sunday’s 3:00 PM start in Sonoma, California. The road courses offer some different choices this week, as opposed to some of the usual suspects. There are some full-time drivers who excel on them, and others who would rather they be crossed off the schedule forever. Then, there’s the road course aces, “subs” for lower-tier teams who will make one of their only two appearances this year.
There are also varying strategies that teams use on road courses when it comes to fuel, so that makes for some interesting information to decipher when it comes to picking your team this week. Let’s see who stands out…
LOOKING FOR SOME ACES
If history tells us anything here, it’s that Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart should be among the favorites. Stewart has been on a roll lately, with four straight top-10 finishes, including a win and two top 5s. And at Sonoma, Stewart has two wins and seven other top-10 finishes in 14 races there, so he has to be one of the favorites.
It seems like a lot has gone wrong for Jeff Gordon this year, but he’s still at 16th in the standings and just 19 points shy of 10th-place Stewart. Sonoma could be a good place for him to make up some ground, or even get his first victory of the season. Gordon has five wins and 11 other top-10 finishes in 20 races at Sonoma.
Another top driver that can’t be ignored here is Clint Bowyer. He drove his Toyota to victory last year, holding off both a determined Kurt Busch and Stewart, so don’t be surprised if his team, and some others, try the same fuel mileage strategy this year to make the 110 laps on the 1.99-mile road course on one less pit stop. In his seven starts there, Bowyer has four other top-10 finishes to go with his win, so there’s actual skill to pair with the smarts.
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
There are all kinds of possibilities in this category.
First, let’s go with a road course ace who is also a regular on the Sprint Cup Series in Marcos Ambrose. While he won on the other road course at Watkins Glen the last two years, he has yet to win at Sonoma. Ambrose has four top-10 finishes in five starts there and should have that victory — in 2010, he took himself out of contention in the closing laps after the car wouldn’t refire while trying to conserve fuel. He’s also bound to get a good qualifying run in the new group format for road courses this week. That’s important, because the road courses would be two of the few places where a good starting place really does matter — passing is far more difficult. Ambrose’s combination of road course and NASCAR experience makes him my pick to win this week.
Kurt Busch desperately wants to win a race, and the road courses may be his best chances. Busch has one win at Sonoma and four other top-10 finishes in his 12 starts there. He’s aggressive enough to work his way up throughout the race if need be — but his “legendary patience” may be the key to his success this week. To finish first, you must first finish…
Another road course ace to look at who is also a NASCAR regular is Juan Pablo Montoya. He has one win at Sonoma and in six starts, he has three other top-10 finishes. Last year was the only major blip on the radar screen, limping home with a 34th-place finish. It would be surprising if Montoya, who came to NASCAR from Formula One racing, is not consistently in the top five for much of the day, considering how competitive the team has been as of late.
One longshot in this category to take a look at is Brian Vickers. He has started seven races at Sonoma and will be in the No. 55 driven by Mark Martin this year. Vickers has one top-5 finish on the road course, and considering his contributions to the 24 Hours of LeMans last year, is capable of pulling off another one this week.
Well, well, what to do here?
There are always a few road course ringers who enter these races and there are plenty this week, with eight such entries.
Two ringers that come to mind immediately when looking through the entry list are Boris Said and Ron Fellows. They each have NASCAR experience and a good understanding of how the cars that are heavier than normal for road racers will handle. Said, who will be in the No. 32 car, has made 13 Sprint Cup starts at Sonoma and has five top-10 finishes. Fellows, who will be in the No. 33 car, has made eight Sprint Cup starts at Sonoma and has two top-10 finishes.
Another familiar name on the list is Jacques Villenueve. He does not have a Sprint Cup start at Sonoma, but his expertise on the road courses as well has having at least some NASCAR experience, including running in some road races in the Nationwide Series, make him worth a look. He will be in the No. 51 this weekend. He has no qualms about mixing it up with the Cup regulars, and he is driving one of James Finch’s disposable race cars this weekend, so look to him to use it up for sure.
A driver making his Sprint Cup debut this weekend will be part-time Nationwide Series driver Paulie Harraka. He’s not generally considered a road course ace, but did have a Nationwide start in Montreal in 2010, where he finished 29th. So, if you need a cheap option, Harraka might be the choice.
One choice to not forget about on the road course is Danica Patrick. She’s coming off a 13th place at Michigan and the former IndyCar star has plenty of experience on road courses from her open-wheel days. Just how she will handle the bigger cars when making right turns remains to be seen. But when it comes to picks this week… don’t forget about Patrick.
THE REAR-VIEW MIRROR
Every now and then, a blind squirrel does find an acorn and maybe that explains how this week’s high score was achieved in the two Frontstretch Fantasy Leagues in Yahoo! Yes, yours truly, otherwise known as the Bomb Squad, amassed 363 points this week, which also happens to be the most points scored in any single week this season.
The winning combination consisted of race winner Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart in fifth, Carl Edwards in eighth and Austin Dillon in 11th. Three of the top eight and four of the top 11 … I’ll take that any week. And since the worst week in any segment is thrown out, that makes Bomb Squad the leader in the 13-race summer segment. But as we all know, this could, and probably will, change next week.
As for the overall standings on the season, SiLo Sounds Racing jumped into the lead with 3,686 points, while team cdakost fell one spot back to second at 3,660 points. Bomb Squad at 3,656 and RWO Motoring with 3,620 points are next in the standings.
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