Did You Notice? … Sonoma is a track capable of producing a surprise winner? There have been 10 winners in the last 10 Sprint Cup races there, the perfect mix of David and Goliath. For every Jeff Gordon on that list, there’s a Juan Pablo Montoya. For every Kyle Busch, there’s a Martin Truex Jr. It makes Sunday one of the most wide-open races among the competitive Cup teams in recent memory.
Despite so many names that toasted victory in the heart of California wine country, there’s still plenty starving for a taste. Here’s a few you can believe in if you want to think 11 for 11 is a feasible streak that can continue on….
Jamie McMurray. Last year’s polesitter, McMurray led nine laps en route to a respectable fourth-place finish. His Chip Ganassi Racing team sits as the highest in Sprint Cup points (seventh) without a victory. Never a road-course winner, you figure McMurray’s rotten luck for the Chase has to break at some point: he’s 0 for 11 so far since the sport adopted its playoff format in 2004. No one else in the sport has that type of track record, especially those who had competitive rides every year under this system.
Kyle Larson. McMurray’s teammate has been showing signs of life as of late; his Michigan near-miss was a clear indicator the No. 42 team isn’t afraid to take a chance. So why not go all out on the road courses? Qualifying third at Sonoma last June, he picked up the rhythm of the track quickly at a place that typically hasn’t been kind to newcomers. Would anyone be surprised, considering this kid’s talent level if he came out of nowhere and pulled an upset?
Greg Biffle. Biffle, who is winless through a decade-plus of road course starts, has quietly put together a solid Sonoma resume. Half of his 12 career races there have ended with a top-1o result; his average finish of 13.8 is respectable. Roush Fenway Racing knows they’re at a disadvantage at horsepower tracks; Sonoma offers them an opportunity. Biffle, with the right amount of strategy has the driver skill to muscle his way to the front.
Casey Mears. OK, Mears is the longest of longshots, driving a No. 13 Germain Racing Ford that views a top-10 performance like a win. But consider they’ve had around a 15th-place car at Sonoma three straight years now. Their satellite teammate at Richard Childress Racing, Truex Jr., is busy running circles around the competition. Mears himself has a host of experiences running road courses in both bulky NASCAR vehicles and open wheel. They also have one of the cleverest crew chiefs, “Bootie” Barker manning their program. A lot of dominoes would have to fall Germain’s way – this team is not one capable of building elite speed – but they’re also built to maximize their opportunities. Yes, it’s the longest of longshots but any chance for Mears to visit Victory Lane will come here or at Daytona the following week.
Not one driver I didn’t mention here: AJ Allmendinger. Yes, he’s a trendy pick this week but his No. 47 Chevy has also not run inside the top 10 since Las Vegas in March. Never a top-five finisher at Sonoma, the ‘Dinger isn’t suddenly at the top of the charts elsewhere just because he won at Watkins Glen last August. I think that’s his only shot: not this Sunday.
Did You Notice? Some of the small teams who started the Sprint Cup season with high hopes have fallen by the wayside? All it takes is a few DNQs and suddenly, a new owner climbing up the ladder is faced with the prospect of mounting debt and potentially closing up shop. Here’s a few updates on some smaller-scale operations and their future plans for 2015 after being forced to scale back…. (hat tip to fellow staffer Aaron Bearden for helping gather info)
Background: Owned by Joe Nemechek, NEMCO Motorsports has competed in NASCAR since 1990. The team has 28 wins inside the sport, rising as high as the Sprint Cup Series. After running full-time the last few seasons, the team was on the preliminary entry list for the season-opening Daytona 500, with Nemechek behind the wheel, but they withdrew from the race.
Future Plans: NEMCO has competed in the Camping World Truck Series full-time with Joe and son John Hunter Nemechek, and it appears that may be their only plans for the rest of the season. When asked for a comment, the team released the following statement:
“NEMCO Motorsports remains as a team in NASCAR’s three national series with ownership in each series. Currently, the primary focus of NEMCO Motorsports is on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) with driver John Hunter Nemechek. NEMCO Motorsports does not have any scheduled NASCAR Sprint Cup Series entries for the 2015 season.”
LUNKENHEIMER: John Hunter Nemechek Prepared to Race Full-Time
Background: The struggles for Team XXXtreme Racing this season have been well documented. First, the team had a vehicle stolen at Atlanta, later recovered by local authorities in a case that remains a mystery. Then, owner John Cohen came under fire for unethical practices and shut the team down.
To date, Team XXXtreme has only competed in the Daytona 500, scoring a 32nd-place finish with Reed Sorenson.
Future plans: Owner John Cohen has dropped off of the grid amid claims he owes partners money, bailing after his involvement in a failed New York City nightclub. However, a representative for the team took the time to comment on their plans. Unfortunately, there are none. Team XXXtreme Racing has suspended operations, has no driver or crew chief employed on their staff and no timetable on their return to the track.
Background: A regular in NASCAR, Hillman Racing changed their name to Hillman-Smith Motorsports (HSM) at the start of the season; west coast businessman Gordon Smith bought in as a co-owner for the team. The team has continued running weekly with the No. 40 Chevrolet driven by Landon Cassill.
Circle Sport Racing, which fields the No. 33 in association with RCR, is paired with HSM. The two teams worked together to put a No. 39 driven by Travis Kvapil on the entry list for the April race at Texas Motor Speedway, but withdrew on Wednesday before the race. The team repeated a Wednesday withdrawal at the Sprint Showdown. The pairing attempted to make the Coca-Cola 600 and a race at Dover, but failed to make each race on speed. The No. 39 hasn’t been seen since.
Future Plans: The No. 40 will continue to run full-time with backing from CarsforSale.com, a representative for the team confirmed. As for the No. 39, the team has interest in running a second car a few more times this season. They just need a driver to bring money or a sponsor to make it a possibility.
Leavine Family Racing
Background: Leavine Family Racing (LFR) has competed in the Sprint Cup Series since making their debut in 2011 with David Starr. However, the team became a much more consistent presence in 2014, gaining backing from K-Love Radio and Thrivent Financial to allow them to compete in 19 races with driver Michael McDowell.
LFR returned in 2015 with McDowell, attempting seven of the first 12 races of 2015 in their No. 95 Ford. However, the team hasn’t been seen since the May 24 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Future Plans: LFR made a plan to compete in 20 races in 2015; they’re still working on the plan. The team will return with McDowell behind the wheel at Sonoma Raceway, looking to score their first career win. LFR plans to compete in 12-13 more races, with the potential for more starts if they can find funding.
Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off…
- Reports are everywhere this week Kentucky may not be the only track this season where NASCAR debuts a new aero package. Here’s the reaction of experts everywhere: Duh. What did you think, Kentucky was branded as a one-race circus and suddenly all these major changes would magically disappear into thin air? Let’s not be silly.
- You wonder, with Kyle Busch fighting for 30th in points what might happen to some teams directly above him. Take owner Harry Scott, whose fledgling Cup operation occupies 30th in the standings with Justin Allgaier. What if Busch sits 31st, 20 points behind Allgaier heading to the Richmond regular season finale? You don’t think M&M’s will offer a boatload of money for Allgaier to “pull aside?” I firmly remember the first ever Chase, back in 2004 where Chip Ganassi’s team was screaming on the radio for affiliate James Finch and driver Mike Wallace to “pull over.” Those extra points, you see would have put then-driver Jamie McMurray that much closer to making the postseason. Will it happen? I certainly hope not. But it’s a possibility, however ugly, to keep in mind as Kyle Busch’s mulligans begin to decrease. How much is a Chase bid worth? Let’s hope we never find out.
- Did anyone watch the Xfinity Series this weekend? The answer: not really. After being banished to FOX Sports 2, the cable channel you need binoculars to spot, only 377,000 viewers tuned in for the race. Not only is that a season low for the series itself, it may be a season low for any of NASCAR’s top three divisions this century. Can someone down in Daytona Beach sound an alarm bell? The fact a NASCAR racing series could be banished to such a far away channel, failing to budge other programming on FOX Sports 1 shows how little power and influence the sport has these days compared to its stick and ball counterparts. If they can do that for NXS… what happens the next time Sprint Cup postpones a race on FS1? Will the same type of death await a channel away?