It’s a totally different ballgame this week when the NASCAR Sprint Cup series visits Sonoma for the first of two road-course races on the roster. Yes, we’ve got right turns, and left turns, and more right turns and just knowing who to pick this week could very well turn your season around if you have been in a bit of a slump lately, or if your season has gone bad and you’re just looking for something positive.
The 1.99-mile track has 10 turns in it and this is one of those places where if a driver spins, or gets bumped and spins, it’s very easy to go from running in the top five or top 10, to back into the high 20s or in the 30s, simply because it’s so hard to find a place to get back in line. Yes it can be exciting to watch, but frustrating as well if one of your drivers is running a solid race, and then gets booted to the back.
These races too have gained popularity over the last few years, because it’s a little easier for race fans to see the actual driver’s skill on these road courses. It’s not that there’s not skill involved on the ovals, but sometimes it’s just not as easy to see there. Also, there has been some talk of putting a road course in the Chase, but that might be too radical of a change for NASCAR. When it comes to making picks this week, it just might be a week to be a little radical — rather than normal — in order to make up some ground in the standings.
LOOKING FOR SOME ACES
Two of the last three winners at Sonoma have been Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch and the records they have there are simply too good to ignore when it comes to making picks. Bowyer and Busch are also on the Yahoo! A list of drivers and with all of the options there, you simply don’t look to pick either of these guys each week, so now is a good time to use them.
Bowyer has finished first and fifth in the last two races at Sonoma and the way his season is going, he may well need a win to get into the Chase. Bowyer has also led 71 laps in those two races. A big key for these races, too, is qualifying. Unlike most places, it’s important to start near the front here, because if a driver has to start in the back, yes, you can make passes, but there is virtually no room for error simply because there is not enough time to make up for the mistake. That’s another reason to pick Bowyer whose average starting position is 5.5 in the last two races.
Then there is Kurt Busch. Yes, he’s already got his win to make the Chase, but it seems this course is suited for Busch’s talents, where it’s OK to be a little aggressive at times. Busch has an average finish of 3.5 in the last two races. He’s led just 17 laps, but has finished third and fourth in his last two trips there — 2012 saw him chasing down Bowyer for the win in the unsponsored No. 51 of Phoenix Racing — with the rear suspension ripped out of it. Busch also has an average finish of eighth in the last two races with a third and 13th, so the No. 41 team is starting to gain a little momentum, a plus for him and a team that has struggled for much of the year. The key in this race for Busch, unless he starts on the pole, is for him to show some patience when making passes, or there could possibly be some revenge later in the race.
It seems odd to think that Jeff Gordon, who once dominated on the road courses, is almost an afterthought here, but he’s still pretty good at roadcourses, particularly Sonoma. Gordon has finished second and sixth in his last two trips here and really, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up in Victory Lane again where he has five career wins and a remarkable 17 top 10 finishes in 21 races. Sure, it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, but those numbers are hard to ignore.
And I’m sure some of you won’t want to read this part (my 11-year-old son being one of them), but yes, Jimmie Johnson could well be a factor in this race, too. He has finished fifth and ninth in the last two races at Sonoma. He does have one career win there and has seven top 10 finishes in 12 races. Also, now that he’s got three wins on the season, he’s got nothing to lose and doesn’t have to play it conservative, which is a great thing for any driver at any track. I think that’s even more important on a road course, where you have to drive to win, rather than drive not to lose.
MIDDLE OF THE ROADSTSERS
This is the strongest group to pick from this week as there are several options, most of which are actually safe bets to contend for the win.
First, you’ve got Marcos Ambrose, who if he wants to make the Chase, one of the two road course races are his most realistic shots to win and get in. Ambrose hasn’t won at Sonoma, but he has been seventh and eighth in each of the last two races and has sat on the pole once. He also has led 29 laps there and you know that since he has tamed Watkins Glen, he’d love to do the same at Sonoma. Ambrose also knows, like everybody else, this is one of his two best chances to make the Chase, so you know he be racing with a bit of an edge on Sunday and that’s probably a good thing for him — so long as he doesn’t shut it off going up hill like he infamously did in 2010.
Next, you’ve got AJ Allmendinger who has used his Champ Car experience to help him master the road courses in the Nationwide Series, and now he just may be ready to do the same in the Sprint Cup series. Like Ambrose, this may well be his best chance to make the Chase, as well; wouldn’t be interesting to see these two guys nose to tail on the last lap? If the second place guy moves the leader out of the way for the win, really, who could blame them? At any rate, Allmendinger’s best finish at Sonoma is seventh and he also has a ninth as his only two top 10 finishes in five career races there. But I would be surprised if he’s not near the front for much of Sunday’s race.
Don’t forget about Tony Stewart here, either. Smoke must be feeling pretty good given his ability to vent some mid-race frustration toward Kyle Larson last week. Stewart does have two career wins at Sonoma and has a second-place in one of the last two races. He also needs a win to make the Chase, but unlike Ambrose and Allmendinger, he’ll likely have chances elsewhere in the coming weeks. But I wouldn’t expect Stewart to play nice if he’s got a shot at the top spot on the last lap, either.
Defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. is now with Furniture Row Racing this year, and given their performance thus far, it’s hard to say whether this will be a realistic chance for him to win or not. However, Truex has led 66 laps in the last two races, including nearly half of last years laps in the MWR No. 56 Toyota. A win here would do well to get him in The Chase — hopefully for good this time around.
Sure, we all have a favorite driver, but almost every week I look the driver’s statistics at each track and try to make some objective choices at who I think will run well. Now, Boris Said is not my all-time favorite driver, but as a Said-Head wannabe, this is likely one of the only two chances to pick him this season, so it’s true: I’m not going miss it.
Said is the only road-course ringer in this week’s field, and he’s finished only 18th and 29th in the last two races there. But he does have five top 10 finishes in 14 career races at Sonoma, including a career-best sixth. If you’re on a pick limits, or need a cheap option for your budget, Said is a no-brainer this week.
The other options here are pretty sketchy. Kyle Larson certainly would be a solid choice given his experience on road courses, but this is his first time at Sonoma in the bigger and heavier Sprint Cup car, and his admitted inability to drive a stick, so it’s hard to say for sure how he will do. And if you’re on pick limits, this is probably not a race you want him in unless you think he can win it. Last year I thought maybe Danica Patrick would be a good choice here as she has road course experience in IndyCar, but she finished 29th. If you think she can get a top 20 finish, then she might be worth a look to.
The overall leader in the Frontstretch league on Yahoo! remained LeftTurnOnly at 4,106 points. Next are NoBarNASCAR at 3,957, Ace Racin’ at 3,861, Doo Doo Brown Racing at 3,851 and the lost son of Ben Cartwright at 3,849. The biggest movers of the week were Sassy Motorsports and Yellow Stripe each moving up eight spots. The top score of the week went to Joe Pa’s at 367 points with race winner Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski in third, Kyle Larson in eighth and Tony Stewart in 11th.