NASCAR returns from their off week Sunday but Sonoma Raceway, nestled beautifully within the wine country of northern California, makes it feel like the sport is still on summer vacation. One of the few Sprint Cup races with limited support (both the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series aren’t here this weekend) you can find most drivers in the heart of Napa Valley, enjoying the “grapes” as much as this gorgeous, 1.990-mile racetrack.
Sonoma also offers a unique challenge, both for the Cup drivers and your fantasy roster: road course racing. There’s only two of these events on the schedule, none during NASCAR’s postseason, which leads to a wide variety of approaches. There are some drivers, like Matt Kenseth who are championship-level performers in the sport but could care less about making right turns twice a year. And why should they? The focus on the 10-race Chase limits the rewards of improving at both here and Watkins Glen.
The difficulty for some superstars to navigate both left and right turns open the door for others who cut their teeth racing on street courses – not the traditional Saturday night short track. Open-wheel convert AJ Allmendinger, for example is one of several hoping to walk away with the “steal,” a trip to Victory Lane that ensures them a spot in NASCAR’s Chase they might not otherwise earn.
Either way, the variety of faces up front have made these races a “must watch” on the schedule each year, places where driver skill pushes aerodynamics aside and makes for great competition down the stretch. It’s the perfect place to reinvigorate energy into a sport looking to capitalize on the “summer doldrums,” faced with limited competition from the stick-and-ball crowd until the start of NFL preseason and the Olympics in early August.
2016 Toyota / Save Mart 350
Time: 3:00 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Sonoma Raceway (Sonoma, Calif.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Chase Elliott
NASCAR’s leading rookie sure isn’t racing like one these days. While Joey Logano pulled away at Michigan to earn his first victory of the season Elliott finished runner-up for his best Sprint Cup Series performance to date. In the past nine races, the freshman has finished inside the top 10 in eight of them and that other race? He ran a respectable 12th. It’s not a matter of if but when at this point this second-generation star breaks through to Victory Lane although Sonoma would be a tough place to do it considering his limited road course experience.
Who’s at the Back: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Is NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in jeopardy of missing the Chase? Say it ain’t so. It seems impossible for the Hendrick Motorsports team to be even close to the cutline, but three crashes in the last six races have left both fans and even the driver himself a little uneasy. Only 30 points ahead of 17th place (and teammate) Kasey Kahne, all it would take is a poor performance this weekend and a Daytona wreck not of his making for Earnhardt to be on the outside looking in. Will it happen? Unlikely. It’s easy to forget Earnhardt has a series-high four runner-up finishes this year and the team has the most resources of anyone competing on the Cup circuit. But the fact it’s on the table at all speaks volumes for a team whose roller-coaster luck has placed them in a more awkward spot than they should be.
The latest Silly Season news has turned toward the future of Toyota, Furniture Row Racing and Martin Truex Jr. FRR wants to sign Truex long term but needs additional sponsorship to make it happen. Why? Young Erik Jones, Toyota’s young prodigy continues to dominate in the XFINITY Series and is being prepped for a promotion to Cup next season. While a JGR property, there may be no room for Jones at their four-car team as everyone, from veteran Matt Kenseth to Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, currently appears to be on board for 2017. That would put Jones in line to land at FRR, putting both the team and Truex in a difficult spot. “It’s sponsorships,” owner Barney Visser told Motorsport when asked what the holdup was on his team’s potential expansion. “Toyota is doing everything they can to help us. They’ve been terrific to work with. Joe Gibbs is doing everything he can to help get this thing done.”
Canadian Patrick Carpentier will return to the Cup Series this weekend, attempting to make his first start in five years. The former open-wheel convert is running the small-time No. 32 Ford this weekend, replacing Boris Said who won’t be on the Sonoma starting grid for the first time since 1999.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Wins by Toyota in the first 15 races, the most of any manufacturer.
Laps led by Martin Truex Jr. the most of any Cup driver and a career high with 21 races this season still to go.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
For Jimmie Johnson, a California native, Sonoma has been one of his more consistent tracks. Despite only one career victory he’s wheeled the No. 48 Chevrolet to seven straight top-10 finishes in a row. For the six-time champ, road course racing is just another skill set he’s mastered long ago and crew chief Chad Knaus has mastered the pit strategy that often comes with this type of racing.
Middle Tier & Lower Tier
Here’s the meat of your weekend picks, where selections will make or break the roster. Road course racing is a perfect time to pick out different drivers and there’s a few who stand out here, combining these two tiers into one long rip of recommendations.
Clint Bowyer, despite an awkward year with HScott Motorsports, has a previous victory at Sonoma (2012) and posted an average finish on the road courses of 4.5. His current team ran top 5 at Sonoma with Kurt Busch four years ago and they understand Sunday’s one of their few chances remaining to sneak away with a Chase bid.
Ditto for AJ Allmendinger, the 2014 winner at Watkins Glen. Mechanical problems felled him here last season driving for JTG Daugherty Racing, a major disappointment considering the No. 47 team puts the majority of their money and focus into road course events. They came close to victory here with Marcos Ambrose a few years back and Allmendinger, another California native, is just as good if not better here. Will this be the year they break through?
Another team and driver you wouldn’t think of is Casey Mears and single-car Germain Racing. Mears and the No. 13 team have finished inside the top 16 in three of the past four seasons (breaking an axle in 2015). One of the first races they were able to focus on while building the program, past notes and Mears’ experience with road course racing should pay them dividends at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
Finally, there’s Kasey Kahne, whose up-and-down tenure with Hendrick Motorsports has never incurred a “down” run at Sonoma. Four straight top-15 finishes (including three top 10s) have him the most reliable option within the HMS program this weekend outside of Jimmie Johnson. Yes, that even excludes Dale Jr., whose two straight top 10s at the track pale in comparison to a career’s worth of difficult runs at this facility.
What Vegas Thinks
The Busch brothers, both of whom have a history of road course success are the favorites to win this weekend at California. Older brother Kurt enters the weekend with 6-1 odds while the 2015 champion, Kyle stands at 17-2. Kevin Harvick and the aforementioned Allmendinger are next on the list.
What I Think
At some point, the No. 47 and Allmendinger have to break through outside of Watkins Glen. I predict they put it all together this weekend in an event that should have a lot of surprise contenders. I would definitely keep an eye on Bowyer; he’s someone that could easily sneak out of here with the trophy to make up for his most disappointing season to date.
— 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.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)