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Toyota/Save Mart 350 (Sonoma) NASCAR Preview and Fantasy Predictions

Toyota/Save Mart 350 (Sonoma) NASCAR Preview and Fantasy Predictions

Who has the edge in NASCAR's final Cup race before their lone weekend off in 2022?

The NASCAR Cup Series weaves through Wine Country for the final FOX broadcast on the 2022 schedule. The Toyota/Save Mart 350 is the 16th points-paying race of the year and the final one before a well-deserved off week, the only one Cup has before a grueling 20 races in 20 weeks, taking us all the way through the season finale at Phoenix Raceway in November.

At Sonoma, what’s old is new again as NASCAR reverts back to the track’s shorter 1.99-mile course for this event. That, in combination with the sport’s Next Gen chassis, give this race a whole new look. Its length is now extended to 110 laps while the transition to the sport’s younger generation means roughly a dozen drivers never raced on this layout, last utilized in 2018.

The change also means “The Carousel” is replaced with “The Chute,” shortening the track and hopefully creating more side-by-side action at a track where passing had dried up with the old car.

“The Chute creates a little bit more passing going into [turn] four and also going down what I would call [turn] seven,” Kevin Harvick says. “I think that’ll fit our cars better.”

It’ll also make things tricky for drivers, who typically come off that turn wide but then have to get in line to avoid a wall that pops out at that section of the track as they accelerate off the curb.

The other key passing zone is in turn 11, right before the start/finish line, as the cars decelerate into a tight hairpin. It’s where we’ve seen plenty of contact in previous years and passes for the win, like Tony Stewart’s last-lap duel with Denny Hamlin in 2016.

As this roller-coaster year of NASCAR parity continues, Sonoma marks an opportunity for two previous kings of the road courses to claim their crown. Martin Truex Jr. will have former crew chief Cole Pearn making a guest appearance on the team this weekend, reuniting a duo that won here twice together (2018-19). But that June event three years ago marks the last time Truex has tasted victory on a track with left and right turns, falling behind the success of Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott ever since.

Even Elliott, who’s earned half of his 14 career wins on road courses, has struggled in Wine Country compared to Larson, the defending champion of this race. He’s never won here and hasn’t been victorious on a right-turn track since Road America on July 4 of last year.

Can they fend off Larson and more recent success stories on this track type, like Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger? Fans will be eager to see if that duo gets back up front to settle the score from a Circuit of the Americas finish back in March that went Chastain’s way. The ‘Dinger, in particular, enters the weekend with momentum after a NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Portland International Raceway and has nothing to lose as a Cup part-timer running for Kaulig Racing’s upstart No. 16.

Add in pit strategy during a 55-lap final sprint to the finish and the setup is there for fireworks down the stretch. We’ll see if a move back to that high-speed Chute is the spark needed to bring action back to what was one of NASCAR’s best racetracks during last decade’s pre-COVID era.

Toyota/Save Mart 350

Date: Sunday, June 12
Time: 4 p.m. ET
Track: Sonoma Raceway (Sonoma, Calif.)
TV: FS1
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90

Who's at the Front: Joey Logano

It was a solid weekend for Logano at World Wide Technology Raceway, a track where he ran strong in practice and stayed in contention during the race before beating out Kyle Busch during a restart in NASCAR Overtime. It was the third win in less than 18 months for Logano in a Cup race debut, adding to his trophies from the Bristol Dirt Race (2021) and the exhibition event at the L.A. Coliseum back in February.

More importantly, two race victories locks Logano into the postseason during a year where 17 regular-season winners remain a distinct possibility. Only one of those four drivers with two victories (Ross Chastain) sits inside the top 5 in Cup points as it’s been difficult for anyone to achieve consistency with the sport’s Next Gen car.

“I feel like you never know what to expect every weekend when you show up,” said Logano’s crew chief Paul Wolfe. “At this point, we have to just keep learning from our struggles and continue to build on our successes and get ourselves in a good spot as we start the playoffs.”

Who's at the Back: Corey LaJoie

A promising start for LaJoie this season, one that included a fifth-place finish at Atlanta and three top 15s in the year’s first five events, has suddenly gone off the rails. He’s still flashed speed but failed to finish three times during the last month, including an engine problem at Gateway that ticked up his NASCAR-leading DNF total to five (tied with Cole Custer and Cody Ware for the most in that category).

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Earning just 182 points on the year, LaJoie has the lowest total of any full-time driver aside from Ware. That leaves him 31st in points, so far out of contention he wouldn’t even make the postseason with a surprise regular-season victory (drivers must be inside the top 30 in the standings to qualify).

News Briefs

A crew member’s time off has led to a one-race reunion for Martin Truex Jr. and former crew chief Cole Pearn. Pearn, who paired with Truex to win the Cup championship in 2017, will serve in the race engineer position for the No. 19 team at Sonoma behind current head wrench James Small. The full-time person in that role, Nick Burton, is off in order to attend a wedding.

NASCAR Cup Series driver Daniel Suarez will be on standby for Carson Hocevar in the Camping World Truck Series at Sonoma. Hocevar is recovering from a hard crash at World Wide Technology Raceway which broke his right tibia, requiring surgery earlier this week.

ARCA Menards East competitor Sammy Smith is moving up the ranks, making his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut for Joe Gibbs Racing later this season. Smith, the 2021 ARCA East champion, has six wins in less than two years driving within that division and just turned 18 this month.

NASCAR by the Numbers

0
Laps led by rookie Todd Gilliland in Cup this season. He’s the only full-time driver in the series not to get out front for at least a single lap.

10.6
Average finish for Kyle Busch through 15 races this season, the best in the Cup Series and the best for him personally since winning his second Cup title in 2019 (8.6).

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

You have two ways you can go here. Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. are the blue-chip picks, both eager to reclaim their success on this track type at Sonoma. I expect both men to be successful, but they’re expensive in cash leagues and weigh down the flexibility of your roster.

It might be better to go with top-5 contenders that leave you more bandwidth further down the list. Joey Logano has quietly put together three such top-5 efforts in the last six Sonoma races, including a third at this shortened layout in 2016. And Ross Chastain, the March winner at COTA, was seventh in Chip Ganassi equipment here last June. It’s up to you.

Related: Best Sonoma Raceway Drivers for DraftKings

Middle Tier

Aric Almirola enters this weekend with momentum after a top-5 finish at Gateway last weekend. He’s also earned two top-10 finishes in the last three Sonoma races, including an eighth in 2018 running this shorter layout. Not known as a road course expert, Almirola will be inexpensive and a sneaky pick to help create more space on the roster.

Chase Briscoe was 17th in his lone Sonoma start in Cup last season. His Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 team has improved by leaps and bounds since then, positioning him well to contend at a track type that nearly produced his first-ever Cup win at the Indianapolis Road Course last August. AJ Allmendinger won that one, raising his value and making Briscoe a whole lot cheaper by comparison.

Lower Tier

Erik Jones is the trendy pick in this category the past few months and Sonoma should be no different. The No. 43 Petty GMS Motorsports wheelman continues to overachieve, contending for the win at times last weekend, and enters Sonoma with three straight top-11 finishes here. That includes a seventh-place finish on the 1.99-mile layout back in 2018.

Scott Heckert? Who the heck is that? It’s a rare road course ringer filling in for BJ McLeod in his No. 78 Live Fast Motorsports Ford. Don’t expect him to set the world on fire in underfunded equipment; Heckert ran 26th in this car last year. But a gain of nine spots from his 35th starting position would be enough for a solid day in daily fantasy on the bottom of your roster.

What Vegas Thinks

The latest vegasinsider.com odds put Chase Elliott on top of the list of Sonoma contenders, sitting at +550 to win. Kyle Larson is right behind him at +650 with Martin Truex Jr. third on the list at +900, the only other driver to sit lower than +1000.

Entering longshot territory, if you really believe in Erik Jones and that No. 43 team? They’re sitting at +3000.

What I Think

It’s about time Martin Truex Jr. gets his act together in 2022 and Pearn’s appearance should motivate the No. 19 team, getting them in victory lane for the first time this season.

— 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 tbowles81@yahoo.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

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