Toyota/Save Mart 350
June 23, 2015
By Micah Roberts
We've got a little something different in the Sprint Cup series this week that should appeal to a larger audience than normal. For most auto racing fans across the world, they like viewing races on a road course or street circuit, but 34 of the 36 Cup races here in America are on some variation of an oval with continuous left-turns -- just going round and round. This week we get both left and right turns at Sonoma Raceway.
Yes, it's NASCAR road racing in Northern California wine country, where the true skills of a drivers' racing ability come to the forefront like no other in the series. There are only two road course races per season, but between Sonoma and Watkins Glen, this is the much more technical course because of the 160 feet of elevation changes from its highest to lowest point along the 10-turn course. Watkins Glen runs much faster with longer straightaways where Sonoma has tight turns that force drivers to slow down like no where else.
One of the unique features about road course racing is the strategy where teams almost run the race backwards with pit sequences over the course of 110 laps so they can position themselves the best to be as close to the front as possible on their final fuel run. Passing is difficult, but those that do it the best continually find themselves in contention and it usually seems to be the same drivers that get it done the best.
The driver that has had the most success on road courses in NASCAR history has been Jeff Gordon with nine -- five at Sonoma which is considered his home track since he grew up in nearby Vallejo. He hasn't won on a road course since 2006, but he has been runner-up in three of his past four Sonoma starts.
Gordon hasn't won a race this season in what is supposed to be the final Cup season of his career, but this week looks like his best chance. The reason is kind of simple: all of his top competitors that have kept him from winning a road race lately are out of the series. Marcos Ambrose went back to Australia, Juan Pablo Montoya went to IndyCar, Robby Gordon left for other ventures and Tony Stewart is a shadow of his former self. The competition has dwindled, and while several other drivers have eventually become very good on the roads over their careers, others such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth haven't had much success.
The top candidates to derail Gordon's first win of the season, and an automatic ticket into the Chase as only 11 races remain until the tournament begins, are Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch. Each have won at Sonoma once, but more importantly they've been competitive over the long haul. Martin Truex Jr., who has been rolling lately on the ovals, won in 2013, but he's still only averaged an 18th-place finish over nine starts.
While Gordon is the all-time best at Sonoma, since NASCAR started keeping 'Loop' data in 2005 that rates a driver on several categories at each track, Kurt Busch has been rated as the best (Gordon is No. 2). Busch won his only Sonoma race in 2011, but he's been equally good on the course for three different teams showing that he can wheel just about anything on the layout to a good finish.
The dominators on the season so far have been Kevin Harvick with two wins and Jimmie Johnson with four, but their edge is completely erased here this week. Johnson is one of those drivers that has advanced on roads very well as time has gone by, including a win in 2010. He's finished ninth or better in his past six Sonoma starts after having only one top-five finish in his first seven starts. Harvick was runner-up in 2007, but has been 10th or worse in his past three starts, including 20th last season in his first year driving for Stewart Haas Racing.
The best long shot this week is Greg Biffle, and not just because he's finished ninth or better in his past three Sonoma starts, but because Roush Fenway Racing have a nice road course set-up for their cars. Edwards won last season for RFR and was third in two of the previous three seasons. The RFR organization knows this may be their best chance to have a driver represented in this years Chase. Win and your in, but Gordon's No. 24 is in the same boat, and I like Gordon in a desperate mode this week a little more.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (6/1)
2) #41 Kurt Busch (7/1)
3) #15 Clint Bowyer (15/1)
4) #19 Carl Edwards (12/1)
5) #16 Greg Biffle (35/1)
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