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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: What Has Kept AJ Allmendinger from Sonoma Victory?

What Can Separate AJ Allmendinger from Delivering the W on Sunday?

Road course racing is what AJ Allmendinger knows best. He earned his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win in thrilling fashion two years ago at Watkins Glen International, and will be going for a second consecutive pole in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Stepping back from his Cup numbers at the left-and-right circuits, the California native also grabbed two XFINITY Series wins in 2013 at Road America and Mid-Ohio after a three-year career of Champ Car competition, including five wins.

Despite that background, Allmendinger’s on-track numbers regarding Sonoma are not as colorful. With back-to-back 37th-place finishes, his best finish at the 1.99-mile track is a semi-sweet seventh-place in 2009. Since then, five races later, driver No. 47 has only one top 10, coming with Team Penske in 2012.

With such a broad, successful background on places like Sonoma, what is separating Allmendinger from another Chase-clinching win? A lot of it is simply due to luck. In 2014, it was contact from Dale Earnhardt, Jr., which slid Allmendinger into the turn-11 wall with 35 laps remaining. And last year, a fuel system issue about halfway through the event ended his chance at a win.

But even looking past the on-track luck, or lack thereof, Allmendinger has been in prime position to fall victim to pressure. Two times a season he is looked at as the man to beat. He himself holds that hasty personality that can breed an occasionally audacious interview.

If Allmendinger and team can overlook the hype, the JTG Daugherty Racing group can have a day worth celebrating.

Can Matt Crafton End His Gateway Troubles?

Gateway Motorsports Park is the place many NASCAR fans got a real taste of Matt Crafton. Though he’s been in the Camping World Truck Series full-time since 2001, Crafton really grabbed headlines at Gateway back in 2009. That day, the then-one-time race winner caused quite the stir on a hot September afternoon when he made contact with Todd Bodine while racing into turn 1 following a restart.

“There is no cure for stupid,” a furious Bodine said. “This kid has done this crap his whole career… The kid doesn’t think.”

Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images
As Crafton took a chance, the race quickly turned upside down for Ron Hornaday, Jr. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

On the following restart, Ron Hornaday, Jr. spun off the bumper of Crafton with four laps to go, sparking yet another storm of controversy.

Shortly before then, Crafton quipped a line that cemented his stance in the Truck Series: “I ain’t scared.”

Seven years later, that “kid” is now the most experienced driver in the series, with two championships, and is the winningest full-time series regular with 13 career victories.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the dark cloud that seems to rule over Gateway Motorsports Park for Crafton. Running two races since the series returned to the 1.25-mile track in 2014, each event has proved troublesome for the 40-year-old, crashing out to results of 26th and 21st, respectively. Even in the other 10 starts for Crafton, he only grabbed one top-5 result and failed to lead a single lap.

The string took a different turn the past two years, leading a total amount of 60 laps in 2014 and 2015 combined and having significantly quick trucks. Even cutting a tire while leading in 2014, Crafton was the odds-on favorite to take either race win.

However, one factor which was not present in these races was William Byron, who, at 18, will go for a third consecutive win after winning at the similar short track of Iowa last weekend.

We could be in store for another Byron win; however, Crafton being called a kid is sure to be off the menu this time around.

How Will Road America Fit IndyCar?

How can Brad Keselowski testing a Verizon Indycar Series racecar at Road America not get you a little excited to see the full open-wheel field take the green this Sunday?

For the second time this year, Indycar will attack a new and returning circuit, breaking a nine-year string dating back to Sebastien Bourdais‘ triumph in 2007. Since then, the track has seen the ARCA Series run once and the XFINITY Series run six races, bringing a whole new type of show for the Wisconsin crowd as of late.

Now, America’s favorite open wheelers are coming back for Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix. How will the series fit the track and who could master it best?

2015 Road America NXS pack racing II credit NASCAR via Getty Images
Will IndyCar be able to assert open wheel cars back at Road America? (Photo NASCAR via Getty Images)

The latter question just can’t be answered without the name Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman has owned the series thus far in 2016, finishing on the podium six of eight times, including five poles and three wins. No matter what has been thrown at the third-year Penske driver, he has proven to be able to catch it with his eyes closed.

Despite Pagenaud holding a firm 80-point gap in the championship standings, 2016 has still been a year of parity, with 13 of the top 15 point-getters earning a podium this season. Additionally, Pagenaud is the only repeat winner, with five drivers splitting the top step in the meantime.

In terms of how the cars will react to the 4.048-mile track, it’s a toss-up. On one hand, the limited run-off areas will add a distinct challenge for the drivers, especially on restarts, for overtaking. However, Road America has a number of strong passing opportunities for the field, with its best places landing in turns 1, 3, 5 and 12 – and you can add the final turn 14, if someone decides to get antsy.

Like many road courses on this planet, setting your rhythm must gel well with nailing braking sections, avoiding the green stuff [grass] and not overcooking the tires too early in a run.

All of these and more will make Sunday a fun afternoon of racing.

Will Past Experience Help or Hurt Rookie Class on Sunday?

In the minds of most, the 2016 rookie class has not disappointed. Chase Elliott is consistently running and finishing in the top 5 and Ryan Blaney has a handful of top 10s to compliment his fifth place at Kansas, while the rookies in lesser equipment – Chris Buescher and Jeffrey Earnhardt – continue to focus on track time.

With 15 oval events through, how much different will the class be in the first road course race of the season? One of them will not be in the field, as Earnhardt will step aside for road course whiz Patrick Carpentier in the No. 32 Go FAS Racing Ford.

With new additions Cody Ware and Dylan Lupton completing the 41-car entry list and joining the rookie class, there will be a lot of eyes on these drivers to see how they perform in one of the sport’s premier challenges.

For Elliott, he will not go in cold turkey, as the 20-year-old will take part in the K&N Pro Series West race, making his first series start since 2012 to prepare for Sunday’s contest. And it may be worth the extra time, as Sonoma has never been a place that is easy on rookies. In 27 races since 1989, only three rookies have finishing in the top 10 – Kenny Irwin, Jr. in 1998, Ryan Newman in 2002 and Juan Pablo Montoya, who won in 2007.

Shifting to Buescher, the No. 34 driver scored his first XFINITY win at Mid-Ohio in 2014 before finishing third at Watkins Glen and a fourth again at Mid-Ohio last season. Additionally, Buescher grabbed two third-place finishes at the road course of Millville in the ARCA Racing Series in four total starts.

For Blaney, very little road experience has not lacked its share of results, earning a last-turn pass for the win over German Quiroga at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2014 before finishing second at Road America on the XFINITY side last season. However, like Elliott, Sunday will be his first attempt at Sonoma.

Providing the sport with very little on-track chaos through almost half a season, the rookie class can easily keep it going in a strong fashion on Sunday.