Kasey Kahne. Martin Truex Jr. Carl Edwards.
Sonoma Raceway, NASCAR’s first right-turn racetrack this season, has produced a number of surprising faces in Victory Lane on a road course. Kahne, known for his intermediate track success, took the old No. 9 team to the win here eight years ago. Truex, back with Michael Waltrip Racing, did the same in 2013 during a time he was struggling to run up front on a weekly basis.
Edwards, in 2014 earned his lone career road course victory in NASCAR’s Cup Series. Even with that performance his 15.4 career average finish at Sonoma stands as his worst at any track outside of Martinsville, Daytona and Talladega.
Next up was Kyle Busch, winning in 2015 despite serious leg injuries suffered at Daytona four months earlier. Tony Stewart pulled a similar stunt last season, a few lucky breaks combined with raw talent to make his recovery from a fractured vertebrae complete.
Add those names up and it’s clear Sonoma has become one of the sport’s most unpredictable tracks. And considering the sport’s best road course racers this century, Jeff Gordon and Stewart, are now sitting on the sidelines, it makes this race even more wide open.
You have the road course ringers, one-off performers like Billy Johnson in Richard Petty’s No. 43 driving with nothing to lose. You have an AJ Allmendinger, whose middle-class team pours every ounce of energy they have into this race as a gateway to the playoffs.
There are the stronger road course racers on the circuit, men like the Busch brothers, Clint Bowyer, and Denny Hamlin. But for them to stay up front they have to survive a barrage of pit strategy and crew chief maneuvers which will only increase with NASCAR’s division into three stages for 2017.
Bottom line, your favorite could be running 20th with 20 laps to go and then suddenly have a chance to win. Expect an event where the field is jumbled up until the final few moments of the race.
If only NASCAR could bring this element of unpredictability to their oval racing, well, then maybe we wouldn’t be talking about declining ratings and attendance. There’s a reason they wanted to add another road course race for 2018; it’s the one type of speedway these days where competitive balance seems to be consistently working.
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: Chip Ganassi Racing
Kyle Larson is coming into his own as a Cup Series superstar. Winning at Michigan Sunday, he now has two wins this season to go with five runner-up finishes. At 24 years old, he leads the Cup Series standings and some outspoken comments toward USA Today Sports this week have showcased a new, speak my mind side of his personality NASCAR sorely needs.
Perhaps just as impressive is the performance of teammate Jamie McMurray. Fifth at Michigan Sunday, he’s run 15th or better in each of the 12 races where he has not wrecked. Sitting seventh in the standings, he’s solidly in playoff position and could easily win a race at a track like Kentucky or Daytona in the summer months.
No wonder why Ganassi’s not worried about Silly Season (he said both 2018 teams will “stay the same” on SIRIUS XM Radio this week). Why in the world would you make changes anyway when both teams are running so well?
Who’s at the Back: Danica Patrick
If Patrick didn’t have bad luck this season, she’d have no luck at all. An innocent victim of contact at the end of the Michigan race, that hard wreck was her sixth DNF of the season. Only Jeffrey Earnhardt, driving for a vastly underfunded team until recently, has more this season. Patrick’s average finish of 26.5, as of now is the worst of her full-time Cup career. The sport’s lone female driver in the series says she wants to continue with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 but you wonder if, in the end she’ll even have a choice.
Denny Hamlin’s nail-biting victory in the NASCAR XFINITY Series at Michigan has been tarnished. Officials labeled the win an “encumbered finish” after they found the car’s splitter was not flat in post-race inspection. That caused a loss of 25 owner points, a two-race suspension for crew chief Chris Gabehart and a $25,000 fine.
Crew chief Chad Knaus was the victim of theft in San Francisco this week as someone broke into his rental car and stole a laptop (among other items). On that computer were setup notes for the No. 48 team as they prepped for the race at Sonoma this Sunday. Luckily, other team members had the same information so it didn’t cause much of a problem for them in practice.
FOX is pushing a Camping World Truck Series race next month over to its FOX Business network. That event happens to be Eldora, the most anticipated race of the season for that division, but a CONCACAF men’s soccer match featuring the U.S. Men’s National team will get higher ratings. That game will now end up on FOX Sports 1 July 19 while NASCAR, like it has so often in recent years, is getting sent to the back burner channel.
This race, like most road course events lends itself to “ringers” making a one-off start in the sport’s top series. Among those making an appearance this weekend are Billy Johnson, Boris Said, Kevin O’Connell, Tommy Regan, Alon Day and Josh Bilicki.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career top-10 finishes in 33 road course Cup starts for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has never won at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen.
Last season’s average finish for Denny Hamlinat Sonoma and Watkins Glen. That led all drivers on road courses.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
I’d go Denny Hamlin for a couple of reasons. One: see above. Hamlin developed into one of the sport’s best road course racers the last few years and came one turn short of beating Stewart here last season. Two: he’ll have a chip on his shoulder after that Michigan XFINITY win now comes with an asterisk. Three: Joe Gibbs Racing has been held out of Victory Lane for 15 races now. The four-car team can’t experience this avalanche of bad luck forever.
If you’re hesitant, the Busch brothers also are pretty good options. Kurt has six straight top-12 finishes here; he won in 2011 while Kyle has been first and seventh the past two seasons.
You wouldn’t think it but Ryan Newman has quietly built up a solid Sonoma track record with Richard Childress Racing. Runs of 11th, ninth and eighth since taking over the No. 31 Chevrolet make him a quiet dark horse to earn a top-10 finish for your roster.
The same goes for Jamie McMurray. Jamie Mac is fourth, 11th and 17th in his last three Sonoma races and enters the weekend with momentum from Michigan. Considering this track’s recent history of surprise winners? You can’t count him out.
AJ Allmendinger’s No. 47 team prepares all season for two tracks: Sonoma and Watkins Glen. They know it’s their only chance to reach Victory Lane and the ‘Dinger is almost always a contender here, bringing over his road course skills learned in open wheel. Just be aware that an average start of 1.7 the last three seasons hasn’t resulted in a single top-10 Sonoma result. This team goes boom-or-bust at the road course and if they make even a small mistake… watch out.
If you’re looking to take a road course ringer, a one-off effort Johnson is sitting in the best equipment. No, that’s not Jimmie, that’s Billy in the No. 43. Keep in mind Darrell Wallace Jr., subbing for an injured Aric Almirola, was 19th in this car last week in Michigan. There’s hope here a ringer could pull off a solid finish.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr.sits as the prerace favorite Friday night with 5/1 odds. Kyle Buschand Kevin Harvickare close behind.
What I Think
After a season to forget for Joe Gibbs Racing, Denny Hamlinprovides redemption. Expect the No. 11 car to cash in on the win it missed out on last season at Sonoma.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)