Cami Starr and Mike Neff · Wednesday June 20, 2007
NASCAR heads to Sonoma for the first of two road course races on the schedule this year. The twists and turns of these tracks always offer fantasy owners a chance to pick up a seldom used driver and score some points; the different style of racing leads to a different pack of drivers running up front more often than not. This year, there’s also an added wrinkle involved in picking your fantasy lineup; the Car of Tomorrow makes its debut on a road course, putting handling and performance in question for part-time road course racers who are not yet used to the new vehicle. Even with the full-time Cup road course specialists, talent will not automatically lead to triumph out in Wine Country; there will be some doubts as to whether teams that have not done well with the CoT so far can get it working well enough to turn right as well as left.
So, who’s going to end Sunday afternoon off in the California dirt, and who’s going to spend the weekend shoving dirt on the rest of the competition? Find out as we help you set your lineup in this week’s edition of Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Cami's Race Rewind:
The King reclaimed his crown last year at Infineon Raceway. No, not Richard Petty; it was Jeff Gordon who earned the ninth road course victory of his career in the 2006 Dodge / SaveMart 350. Gordon, who ended a 19-race winless streak with the victory, started from 11th position and led his first of 44 laps on lap 49. In order to claim the win, though, he had to work his way past former teammate Terry Labonte in the closing laps. Labonte, driving for Hall of Fame Racing, used pit strategy to gain the top spot, but a series of late race cautions and red flags proved to be his undoing as the lead he built up quickly evaporated. Ryan Newman edged Labonte for second place, with Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch rounding out the Top 5. Tony Stewart was going for a fourth straight road course win, but a pit road speeding ticket and late race cylinder problem dropped him to a 28th place finish.
Mike's Keys to the Race:
Of the two road courses on the Nextel Cup schedule, Sonoma is far more technical than Watkins Glen. That means drivers who have the most success are generally the drivers with the most road course experience: past success is going to be a direct indicator of the potential for a solid finish this weekend. The only reason to have any doubts is the fact that this is going to be a Car of Tomorrow race, which could make things difficult for everyone. Fortunately, two of the strongest road course racers also drive for two of the strongest CoT teams. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have strong potential for impressive runs this weekend. Of course, two potential hidden gems for this race are also Juan Pablo Montoya and A.J. Allmendinger. Both drivers are experienced road racers with open wheel backgrounds, but are not normally on teams in draft leagues. Both should be available for little salary, so consider adding them for this weekend to pick up some bonus points.
Crank â€˜Em Up:
Juan Pablo Montoya is one of the best road racers in the world, and now he runs in the Cup series. While he hasn't lit the world on fire yet this year, there is no doubt that he will be a strong threat for the victory this weekend in Sonoma. He has already notched a road course win in a stock car by taking the victory in the Busch Series race held in Mexico this year, and needs a strong run to keep the upper hand in his Rookie Of The Year battle with David Ragan. As long as he can avoid ruffling feathers of some of the other drivers who are known to lose their cool from time to time, Montoya should be near the front, if not in first place, when the checkered flag falls.
Kurt Busch might be a bit of a surprise pick for a road course, but he has had some success in the past at Sonoma. He sat on the pole at Sears Point and Watkins Glen in 2006 and has finished third and fifth the last two times the series visited the wine country of California. Driving for Penske is also a plus, considering the owner’s open wheel experience and the success that Rusty Wallace had on road courses. There is a good chance Busch will be near the front this weekend.
Sit â€˜Em Down:
Jimmie Johnson is the defending Cup champion and drives for the most powerful team in the sport, but he is not very good when it comes to road course racing. In five previous visits to Sonoma, he has one Top 5 and two Top 10s, with two finishes of 35th or worse. This is one of the few weeks when it is a good idea to leave Johnson on the bench.
Jeff Burton has been running less than stellar over the last few weeks in the Cup Series. Since AT&T has been on the hood, Burton has finishes of 12th, 13th, and 24th twice. Add to that an average finish at Sonoma of 22.2, and it totals up to be a good weekend to keep Burton on the sidelines.
Roll The Dice
Robby Gordon has been doing amazing things as an owner / driver this year. He is 29th in the driver standings right now with his single-car operation, and now, he’s headed to a road course, one where he always is a threat to win. Gordon has indeed won at Sonoma before and, if he can keep his temper in check, will be a threat to win again this weekend. There are only a couple of times a year that Gordon is worth running on your team, and this is definitely one of them.
Crank â€˜Em Up:
Last year at Sonoma, Jeff Gordon celebrated his engagement to his now wife Ingrid Vandebosch with a victory. This year, he heads to Infineon Raceway looking to win a race for his newborn daughter, Ella, and there is a good shot of that happening. It's no secret that Gordon is one of, if not the, best NASCAR driver on road courses, which is proven by five career wins at Infineon. Add to that the fact that he can seem to do no wrong this year, and Gordon is primed for a good finish this weekend.
One of Gordon's main rivals on the road courses is Tony Stewart. In fact, Stewart came into this race last year looking for his fourth straight road course win, only to have mechanical problems take him out of contention. There is no doubt that Stewart is hungry to get into Victory Lane this year, and with a 10.5 average finish at Sonoma, this weekend could easily become feeding time.
Sit â€˜Em Down:
Road course racing is hard for some drivers to get a knack for. Some get the hang of it over time, while some never seem to come to grips with making right-hand turns. Perhaps Reed Sorenson will fall into the first category in years to come; but right now, he isn't a bright prospect for this weekend. In his first race at Sonoma, he finished 29th and managed to improve at Watkins Glen later in the year. But with only one Top 10 in the last 10 races, things really aren't going Reed's way right now. There are plenty of other drivers out there to use instead.
Sterling Marlin proves that not all drivers do get the hang of road course racing, no matter how long they have been at it. In 49 road course appearances, Marlin only has one Top 5 finish and ten Top 10s. You have to go back six races to find a race at Sonoma where Marlin finished higher than 18th; that was his career best road course finish of second in 2000. While rumors are swirling about Marlin going part-time next year, it's best to give him time off right now from your fantasy team.
Roll The Dice
When you think of Ryan Newman, a few things automatically come to mind: engineering graduate, cell phone pitchman, and Mr. Bud Pole Award. But road course ace? You wouldn't think of Newman right away when giving a short list of the best left and right turners in the sport, but, in fact, his average of 7.8 at Sonoma is tops among active drivers. In five Infineon starts, he has no finish lower than 14th and four Top 10s. With the roll that he is on already, look for Newman to pad those stats this weekend.
Mike: So, I wanted to thank you for so generously taking Gordon and Stewart. That was very nice of you. Somehow I think you had something to do with Ingrid having her baby today, too.
Cami: No, that was just dumb luck. But after last week, what I’m now calling the “Father’s Day Massacre of my averages,” I needed all the help I could get this weekend.
Mike: Well, you did have a wee bit of a bad weekend. I can’t blame you for wanting to try and rebound quickly. I hope, for your sake, Jeff is able to get some sleep now that the baby is here.
Cami: Wee bit? Are you kidding me? I’m sending Chad Knaus a calculator! But just like Jeff won there last year after getting engaged, he’ll win this weekend for the new kid.
Mike: Your Sit ‘Em picks could be interesting. Sterling might just come out of nowhere with a good weekend.
Cami: Let’s put it this way; if Marlin does put in a good run, that will prove that I am cursed. He’s only had one Top 20 at Sonoma in the last six years.
Mike: True, but he did finish second there in 2000, so stranger things could happen. At least you didn’t sit your buddy Casey Mears down. But I was actually surprised you didn’t take Jamie MACMurray for your Roll The Dice pick. I’d never admit to it, but I was seriously thinking about taking MAC.
Cami: I think you did just admit it there, buddy. Meanwhile, I think you might be on to something with Montoya. He won’t be afraid to push his way to the front; the only problem will be if he runs into someone that will push back. Maybe someone like my Roll the Dice pick and Montoya BFF...Ryan Newman.
Mike: Very true. That could be a bad combination; or what about our good buddy Robby Gordon? Don’t forget, Robby cost himself this race a few years ago when he was too stubborn to let Kevin Harvick by when he was a lap down.
Cami: But Robby still has a good shot at running well here, especially if you need someone who would have a low salary or is in a lower group. What was your logic behind Kurt Busch?
Mike: Yeah, it might be a little bit of a stretch, but Busch has run very well here the last two years. I think it is going to be another good weekend for him and the No. 2 team. Penske can certainly put together a good road course car…there is no doubt about that.
Cami: Very true. I’ll guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Crank â€˜Em Up: 14.1
Sit â€˜Em Down: 22.0
Roll The Dice: 20.2
Crank â€˜Em Up: 12.3
Sit â€˜Em Down: 24.6
Roll The Dice: 19.7
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