NASCAR returns from its second off-week of the season with its first right-turn track on the schedule. Sonoma Raceway, out in the heart of wine country, is the first of three road course tests (a playoff-era high 8.3 percent of 36 races). This season, more than ever what was once a sideshow on the schedule has become a “must have” for drivers to master on their resume.
The Charlotte Roval course, added for this fall is the third and final one; it’s also squarely inside the NASCAR playoffs. That means Cup drivers can no longer “wing it” through what for some was an awkward portion of the schedule.
Indeed, for most of the 1980s and '90s only a handful of full-timers were competitive at Sonoma and the other road course out in Watkins Glen. One-off “ringers” filled other competitive rides and almost made off with a Cup trophy themselves in several races. Ron Fellows, Scott Pruett, Tommy Kendall and later Boris Said were just a few men who made a stock car name for themselves on these tracks.
But at this point, the best ringers are long gone; some of them even turned into driver coaches for the Cup Series' full-timers. Championship contenders are now fully aware of the importance of these tracks and the need for them to get up to speed despite many who have a cursory background, at best at these type of facilities. The old NASCAR driver mold was built on your local short track; that’s not exactly a place where you’re shifting gears and turning right.
But these drivers are not only ready to tackle the challenges these days on road courses; they’re excited. The advent of modern technology, aero push and team parity has diminished their ability to make a difference on oval tracks. Here, driver skill reigns supreme in shorter races where pit strategy and tire management also play a large role.
For underdogs, too there’s hope as some have honed their craft as road course specialists. AJ Allmendinger is the name mentioned most but others like Michael McDowell and newly-minted underdog Kasey Kahne have the raw ability to make a difference here.
Can one of them break through? No underdogs ran better than 14th (McDowell) in last year’s edition of the race. Clearly, the sport’s top teams have refocused their attention on these places. But still, Cinderella can find her glass slipper under the right circumstances.
Let’s see if wine country can toast a diverse, successful race on Sunday with plenty of drivers fighting at the front. It would be a good way to build momentum for the start of NASCAR’s long summer stretch.
30th Annual Toyota/Save Mart 350
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Sonoma Raceway (Sonoma, Calif.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Stewart-Haas Racing
SHR continued their season-long surge at Michigan with a 1-2-3 finish for the first time in the organization’s decade-long history. More importantly, Clint Bowyer officially clinched his spot in the postseason by becoming one of four drivers with multiple wins.
Add in Kevin Harvick’s dominance, Aric Almirola impressing in Danica Patrick’s former ride and the consistency of Kurt Busch, and what you get is a four-car equation that should be a lock for the playoffs. And, if the dominoes fall just right, has an outside shot at taking the Championship 4 all for themselves.
Who's at the Back: Matt DiBenedetto
One of the sport’s most lovable underdogs is happy with a top-20 finish most weeks. But three straight runs of 36th or worse is unusual for even his underfunded Go FAS Racing ride. This talent has raised expectations for this single-car Ford team but they haven’t ridden the coattails of strong manufacturer performance as of late.
NASCAR’shigh-drag aero package won’t be run again in the Cup Series this season. While popular in the sport’s All-Star Race the sport decided implementing it in select events this year would be too costly and unpredictable (read: unfair) for teams on the grid. There is, however, an expectation a modified version will be implemented in the 2019 NASCAR Rules package released later this year.
The sport is also looking at further limiting the starts of Cup drivers in lower series. Currently, they’re limited to seven per season but that number could be reduced to five for 2019. A successful off week of racing in Iowa, a track where no Cup drivers were present resulted in XFINITY TV ratings rising 16 percent -- and a reminder the series doesn’t need major leaguers dipping down to be successful.
One of the first major crew chief changes in Cup this season happened during the off week. Kasey Kahne now has Jon Leonard as his interim head wrench after the team parted ways atop the pit box with Travis Mack. Mack, the former car chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., had struggled to create chemistry with Kahne in their first year together at Leavine Family Racing. While the team has drummed up more sponsorship money they haven’t been more competitive on the racetrack; in fact, Kahne’s average finish trails that of former driver Michael McDowell thus far in 2018.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Kevin Harvick through 15 races, the most of any driver. He’s on pace to lead 2,300, which would be a new career high.
Winners through 15 races this season. That’s the smallest number since NASCAR adopted its current 16-driver playoff format in 2014.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick is Sonoma’s defending champion. He’s also got three straight top-10 finishes in wine country and is, of course, the most dominant Cup Series driver in 2018. Why would you bet against him?
Clint Bowyer has shifted into the top tier by way of his second win of the season at Michigan. He’s also one of the best you could grab at Sonoma with nine top-10 finishes in 12 career starts. That 75 percent top-10 rate should have you cashing in at a place where he was runner-up to Harvick last year.
Looking for a Ford alternative? How about Jimmie Johnson? The No. 48 Chevrolet has struggled at times during the spring and summer but Sonoma is pure driver skill. The native Californian has 10 straight top-15 finishes here and is unlikely to let you down in the middle part of a lineup.
It’s easy to forget Denny Hamlin as a road course specialist. That’s because he spent a large part of his career a step behind some of the other title contenders. But two straight top-5 finishes at Sonoma (plus a breakthrough at Watkins Glen) should make him a sneaky add to your roster at a great price.
A lot of people think AJ Allmendinger is your best bet on these types of tracks. And it’s true the ‘Dinger’s team prepares extensively for one of a few places on the circuit they could potentially win. But what about fellow underdog Michael McDowell? A 14th-place finish last year with the No. 95 team, he’s now with a comparable effort at Front Row Motorsports and has a significant amount of road course skill. Don’t sell him short with a FRM team that was also running well in practice with David Ragan.
I wouldn’t roll the dice on any of the ringers this weekend; they’re all with significantly underfunded teams. If you haveto make a play on one, I’d go with Justin Marks but don’t expect him to be more than a top-25 guy at best with Premium Motorsports.
What Vegas Thinks
The trio of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. has been so dominant this year it’s hard to bet against them. All three at one sportsbook had odds together that reached as low as 4/1.
What I Think
You want a Cinderella to squeak through at a place like this track. The problem? Harvick has just been so good pretty much everywhere. I think the No. 4 team comes back refreshed and cruises to a second straight trip to Victory Lane out west.
-- Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)