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Toyota/Save Mart 350
Gentlemen, and lady, start your damn engines, like now. Hurry! I missed you guys.
 
It's only been two weeks since the Sprint Cup Series last raced, but I almost have this need to see a race like I do each year before Daytona speedweeks starts when I've been waiting over two months for some action.
 
So far, we've seen races on all types of tracks through the first 15 races, but the summer season of NASCAR brings us the two road circuits where we'll see drivers make both right and left turns. The first weekend of August will take us to Watkins Glen International, but my favorite without a doubt is Sonoma just because it's a more technical course with elevation changes. This course separates the roundy-round drivers from the truly skilled drivers. It's also got a nice back drop with the beautiful wine country in Napa and Sonoma Valley.
  
Some drivers hate the road courses and they're real easy to locate just by looking at past history. Matt Kenseth is one of them and his odds reflect it at 50-to-1. He doesn't have any top-fives in 16 starts and has a 22nd-place average finish.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has only one top-five finish in 16 Sonoma starts with a 19.4 average finish and Denny Hamlin has just one top-five in 10 starts (22.7 avg.). Those are drivers considered to be good candidates to win weekly on all other tracks, but on the roads you throw them out of any betting or fantasy equation.
  
The drivers you want to key on this week are the ones who excel over and over again on the roads, and specifically Sonoma. The two road courses are radically different with Watkins Glen being much faster with longer straights and sweeping turns. Entering and exiting the turns fastest at Sonoma takes special skills and there are a few who consistently do it well.
  
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“Everyone likes to compare Sonoma and Watkins Glen since they’re the only two road courses that we run in a year, but they couldn’t be any more different from each other," Matt Kenseth said. "Sonoma has always been a challenge for me because it’s very slow and technical where it’s hard to pass at. Road courses lately, with the restarts being two-wide, has become some of the most aggressive racing that we do all year. Sonoma is one of my most challenging tracks on the circuit as far as finishes and stats go, but I always look to go out there and improve every race.

The driver who has impressed the most at Sonoma over the past few years has been Las Vegan Kurt Busch, who has four top-five finishes there in his last five starts, including a 2011 win. Last season he was runner-up to his brother Kyle Busch, who won there for the second time in his career.
 
Since NASCAR started keeping Loop Data at all the tracks in 2005, Kurt Busch has the top Sonoma rating at 109.3. The only other driver rated at over 100.0 is Jimmie Johnson (101.0). Kurt also leads the series in Loop categories such as 'Average Running Position'(9.613), 'Average Green Flag Speed'(90.227 mph) and 955 'Laps in the Top 15'. His 197 laps led in 15 starts is the most among active drivers.
 
Qualifying well is huge at Sonoma and among drivers with at least three starts Kurt is the active leader with a 9.2 average start position. Just over 70 percent of all Sonoma races have been won from a Top-10 start position.
 
Although Kyle has more Sonoma wins than his brother, his two wins are his only top-fives there in 11 starts. Kurt leads the series with seven top-five Sonoma finishes and if we look at his body of work on the roundy-round tracks, he's been even more consistent. He leads the series with 13 top-10 finishes in 15 starts and got his only win of the season at Pocono three weeks ago which is known as the Superspeedway that drives like a road course. All betting strategies this week should begin with the elder Busch brother.
 
After that you have to look at Kyle Busch despite his win or nothing past history at Sonoma. Last season he started a string of winning four of five races on the schedule with his Sonoma win. The week off couldn't have come at better time since he's finished 30th or worse in his past four starts following his Kansas win. Despite the poor run of luck, he still leads the series with three wins and nine top-five finishes this season.
 
“Sonoma is a neat place," Kyle Busch said. "It’s a cool area to go to up into Wine Country. I’ve always enjoyed road-course racing. Even when I was in Legends cars, I would enjoy going up there during the days that I raced there. Now that I’m on the Sprint Cup tour, it’s cool to go there every June. It’s a fun racetrack. The cars get grouped a lot closer together there than at Watkins Glen, so braking there is a lot tougher getting into turn four, turn seven, and especially turn 11. There are some opportunities in those corners to pass people. Forward bite seems to have become an issue as you get going there during the run. And you need to make sure you keep the rear tires underneath you because it’s really easy to burn them babies off when you try and pass somebody, because you go to pass somebody and hit the gas and all your rear tires want to do is spin and you can’t get alongside that guy. So, from that respect, Sonoma can be frustrating at times, as well. We just want to get in a position to win with our M&M’S Camry, then see how the strategy plays out.”

Jimmie Johnson was never known as a road course driver. In fact, one of his greatest highlights was him running head-on, full speed with no brakes, into a wall at Watkins Glen when drove in the Xfinity Series. After having just one top-five in his first seven Sonoma starts, he's finished ninth or better in his past seven, including a 2010 win.
 
Kevin Harvick has never won at Sonoma, but he's been very competitive with four top-five finishes, including fourth last season. Look for him to contend for another top-five.
 
Clint Bowyer is using absolute junk under the hood this season as he's in kind of a lame duck situation until he takes over Tony Stewart No. 14 next year, but his skills make him someone to consider in match-ups and fantasy lineups. Maybe even a win like he did 2012? He finished third last season and leads the series with a 8.6 average finish in 10 starts. The next best average in the series is Stewart's 12.4.
 
A.J. Allmendinger's only career win came at Watkins Glen two years ago and although he's finished 37th each of the past two Sonoma races, he's still one to be respected. He's listed as one the favorite at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook at 7/1 odds. In seven Sonoma starts he has two top-10 finishes and has led 36 laps.  
 
Sunday's race will be the final FOX telecast of the season before the coverage shifts to NBC at Daytona. I never liked listening to Jeff Gordon's dry monotone voice in all his interviews during his career even though he was one of my favorite drivers, but he brought a huge upgrade to the FOX coverage this year with his insights. That dude brings it with details and he'll be missed weekly. And perhaps most of all, I'll just miss Mike Joy's smooth call of a race. No one does it better. It's been championship NASCAR season for FOX.
 
Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #41 Kurt Busch (6/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (10/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (10/1)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (7/1)
5) #19 Carl Edwards (12/1) 


  
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