The Frontstretch: Sonoma's Four Burning Questions, Including... Montoya's Last Chance? by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday June 21, 2013

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Road racin’, baby! Northern California’s picturesque Sonoma Raceway is the site of this week’s round of Sprint Cup action, and as with any time the series heads to a road course, a whole new set of questions must be asked when assessing our forecast for how the weekend will play out. Aero advantages, front end travel, and drag coefficients all mostly go out the window with road course competition. Instead, this weekend will be all about the drivers’ ability to hit their brake and shift points, managing Sonoma’s technical 11-turn layout effectively. Will that driver be Marcos Ambrose or Juan Pablo Montoya, arguably the two best stock car road racers in the sport? Or will an oval guru, in the vein of Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth take top honors? I can’t see the future, but I can tell you which of those drivers is best positioned to win the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in this episode of Four Burning Questions.

Juan Pablo Montoya has come close to victory a few times in 2013, but will he finally get the job done at Sonoma?

1. Will the beating and banging of modern NASCAR road racing continue?

A funny trend has emerged in NASCAR racing over the past 10 years. It wasn’t all that long ago that most NASCAR fans regarded the road races as two of the worst and most boring events of the year. For the most part, they were right. Up until roughly the early 2000s, NASCAR road races were brutal to watch. Only a select few drivers at the time (see Gordon, Jeff and Martin, Mark) were any good at road racing and would usually just run away from the field, all while the rest of the competition simply tried to keep their cars on track. Many teams treated the road races as throwaway events, leading to full races where there was seldom any action except the occasional wreck.

But alas, NASCAR in 2013 is a much different place than NASCAR in 1995, and one of the biggest changes in that timeframe has been the rapid increase in road racing skill of the average Sprint Cup driver. With the advent of the Chase, teams realized that every opportunity to get a victory mattered, and as such, owners began tasking their drivers with improving their road racing acumen. Oh, have they improved. Every single driver who lines up for Sunday’s race is a competent road racer, and this simple fact has done wonders for the on-track racing product.

Now, instead of trying to simply race the track, the entire field of drivers is so racy that it leads to contact, and contact leads to exciting racing. Expect to see some incredibly aggressive driving on Sunday, as the drivers realize that they can use up their cars due to the decreased importance of aero in road racing. Road course competition is the new short track racing, and you will undoubtedly see that play out in Sonoma.

2. Is this Juan Pablo Montoya’s best shot at a Chase berth?

Juan Pablo Montoya enters this weekend at Sonoma knowing he has to make something happen. Despite the fact that his current fleet of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing machines are among the fastest he has piloted in his entire NASCAR career, Montoya has largely underachieved in 2013. He missed two golden opportunities to score wins in Richmond and Dover, while the rest of the races… well, let’s just say that Lady Luck is not a fan of Juan Pablo Montoya.

In other words, JPM is running out of opportunities. Luckily, however, one of those remaining is perhaps his best one yet, and that opportunity will be opening up this very Sunday in Sonoma once the green flag is dropped on the race. Sonoma is undoubtedly one of Montoya’s strongest tracks, given his background in road racing and his penchant for on-track aggression. The technical Sonoma course is tailor made for Montoya; it’s no wonder he scored his first Cup win there in 2007. A win would do wonders for both his team and his confidence, and it would put them directly into the thick of Chase contention. Sunday is, without a doubt, a must win race for Team 42.

Can JPM step up? That’s what this weekend is going to come down to for him and his team. His current cars are as fast as they have ever been, and he has tasted victory enough times this year to have rediscovered his hunger for Victory Lane. He needs to finally deliver a complete, mistake-free race and to keep his aggression in check. If he can check off all of those boxes on Sunday, Juan Pablo Montoya could very well find that elusive victory that has toyed with him all year long.

3. Will any of the road course ringers threaten for the win?

It used to be that when the Cup Series arrived at a road course, at least one or two top shelf “road ringers” would be signed by one of the bigger, well-funded teams in either a one-off replacement role or even an extra car for the race. But as the top Cup Series drivers have grown more accustomed to road racing, the need for high-powered owners to sign road course specialists has mostly evaporated.

But alas, there is still room for the road course ringer in NASCAR 2013. Nowadays, drivers such as Boris Said, Jacques Villeneuve, Ron Fellows, and others of their ilk are faced with two options if they want to get their NASCAR fix. They can either grab a top, one-off Nationwide ride for the weekend (in Road America), or they can “settle” on driving for one of the underfunded Cup teams, in hopes of delivering an upset performance on a rare weekend that such an upset might be possible. For many Cup teams on the low end of the monetary totem pole, grabbing a road course ringer in this strategy is quite en vogue; many teams have road course ringers signed and ready to race for this weekend. Notably, Jacques Villeneuve will be piloting the No. 51 car for Phoenix Racing and Boris Said will be in FAS Lane Racing’s No. 32. There are a few others in the field as well, but I only listed those two because, frankly, they are the only two who have any chance of running well.

You can probably piece together where I’m going with this point. The 2013 Toyota Save/Mart 350 will not see a road course ringer visit Victory Lane. 80% of them are not piloting equipment that is fast or reliable enough to keep up with well-funded teams, and the few ringers who are piloting semi-decent equipment each have unique issues that will likely keep them from challenging for the win. In Said’s case, he certainly has the experience and talent, but his equipment, while better than what most ringers are piloting, is probably not good enough to penetrate the top 10. Villeneuve, on the other hand has a car that is probably decent enough to win with the right driver, but he just does not have the composure or experience to win in a Cup car.

Long story short, a road course ringer will probably steal a Cup win one of these years. It’s just not happening this time.

4. Can Danica Patrick hang with the top dogs in a Cup Series road race?

I know many of my loyal readers are not particularly impressed with Danica Patrick’s body of work thus far in her NASCAR foray (I’m not impressed either, for what it’s worth), but there are a few places on the circuit where she has proven to be competitive, whether some folks want to admit it or not. Danica proved to be somewhat competent at plate tracks and road courses in her Nationwide career, and as such many predicted going into this season that she would be at her best on such tracks. She’s delivered mixed performances in the Cup plate races thus far, and we’ve yet to see her at a road course in the Cup Series. With that in mind, there’s really no telling how she might run this weekend.

On the plus side, her Nationwide road racing performances were mostly stellar. She was a perennial frontrunner in her limited appearances in those races and could have competed for the win in last year’s race at Montreal had it not been for a rogue shoe hitting her car. And, luckily for Danica, road racing at the Nationwide level is not markedly less difficult than road racing at the Cup level, so the transition shouldn’t be quite as difficult as it was for her at other tracks. Put simply, if she can be a consistent frontrunner in Nationwide road races, she ought to at least be a solid top-20 performer in the Cup Series road course events.

This weekend is undoubtedly one of the last chances Danica has to truly shine before the end of the year. Her ability to adapt to the road racing skill set she honed in both IndyCar and Nationwide to the Cup Series will be the key for her success this weekend, and if she is able to do that (which, at least in my opinion, she should be able to do) she could be in for a decent run on Sunday. If you’re looking for a darkhorse pick, Danica Patrick (gasp!) might be it.

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06/21/2013 11:29 PM

Can the Talladega Chase Race and replace it with a Road Race!

06/22/2013 05:23 PM

Hope that the road course doesn’t become a “wreck fest”. I would rather see the race determined by skill not brute force.

Danica didn’t have such a great result in her practices, don’t know how qualifying worked out. Starting in the back is a tough deal at the road courses.

06/24/2013 06:26 AM

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