Welcome to the winners bracket Denny Hamlin! It took him a lot longer than he had hoped, but his Michigan win last Sunday finally got the monkey off his back. After 15 races last season, Hamlin already had five wins, but he'll take the one win at this juncture just because it's a sign that his team isn't cursed and they can win again.
The win moved Hamlin up three positions in the standings, from 12th to 9th place. For a while, there was some thinking that Hamlin may not even make the Chase because of not having a win and being outside the Top 10. Jeff Gordon's two wins on the season almost assure that he'll make the Chase despite being in 12th-place.
Drivers who are now in the panic mode like Hamlin was in prior to Sunday are Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart, who are both winless and outside the Top 10. Only the first 10 drivers make the Chase on points with the next two getting in based on wins. That kind of reward puts an emphasis on winning in these next 11 races like never before. Drivers who are sitting comfortably with points are now trying harder than ever to win races just to get the seeded points to start the Chase.
Kevin Harvick with three wins would be the leader for the final 10 races to the Championship followed by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and then Gordon.
For Stewart, his time could come this Sunday where he has a huge advantage on the road course at Sonoma. Most NASCAR drivers do not like the roads where they have to turn left and right, preferring the ovals. Stewart loves this type of racing and it shows better than most based on his career on the two road races each season. He's won twice at Sonoma and five other times at Watkins Glen. Each of the two road courses will be in Stewart's path down the stretch as he tries to make the Chase.
Two drivers will be in Stewart's way Sunday that may prevent him from capturing his eighth road course win and more importantly, an invite to the Chase. Juan Pablo Montoya has a resume just a little better than Stewart on road courses, considering he was winning Formula-One races, the highest level of road racing in the world. Montoya's only NASCAR wins have come on the road courses, 2007 at Sonoma and last year at Watkins Glen.
The other driver that will be a thorn in the side of Stewart's side will be Marcos Ambrose, who has been a near winner on Cup road courses the last three seasons. Ambrose finished third and sixth in the last two Sonoma races and finished third twice and runner-up in three Watkins Glen starts. He gave the Sonoma win away last season late in the race when he turned his engine off and couldn't get it started in again in enough time to maintain his lead during a caution.
While Montoya and Ambrose are both a little further down in points than Stewart, this race begins their opportunity to get one of those Chase spot by getting wins. Should they win one or both of the road races, they'll likely make the Chase in the same fashion Jeff Gordon will.
What makes Ambrose so attractive this time around is that he's driving a car that is much better than what he had with all those great finishes the last three years.
The road courses were once owned by Jeff Gordon in his early years as he piled up five wins at Sonoma, but he’s admitted that his team hasn't put an emphasis over the last few seasons on their road car set-ups with testing because it only represents two races a year. While he's still one of the best road course drivers, he hasn't been as dominating as he once was. The odds in recent years have reflected his decline. Gordon used to be 2/1 or less to win a road race, but he can now be found at 8/1.
Jimmie Johnson won this race last season thanks to Ambrose, but he has proven over the last two seasons to be pretty good turning right as well. He worked hard as a champion to get better at all his weaknesses and the roads were priority number one. And just like everything Johnson has set to accomplish over his career, he succeeded.
A few long shots that could surprise this week are Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle. All three have shown surprising talents on the roads. Harvick also has a Watkins Glen win in 2006 to show he's capable of winning. Another road ace to watch this week is A.J. Allmendinger.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #9 Marcos Ambrose (6/1)
2) #42 Juan Pablo Montoya (7/1)
3) #14 Tony Stewart (7/1)
4) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
5) #29 Kevin Harvick (16/1)