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June 17, 2014
By Micah Roberts
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Jimmie Johnson’s first career win at Michigan on Sunday was his third win in the past four Sprint Cup races, and it was Hendrick Motorsports fifth straight win. Hard to believe it was only a month ago that Johnson had no wins through 11 races on the season. He’s been dropped down to 9/5 odds (Bet $100 to win $180) at the LVH SuperBook to win the 2014 Sprint Cup Championship.
Is Johnson just going to run away with this thing? It’s a lot tougher for him in this year’s Chase format because if he makes it the unofficial championship game at Homestead in the season finale, he’ll have to race three other drivers in a winner-take-all format. Whoever finishes best in that race among the four finalists will be crowned the champion.
Michigan was one of five tracks Johnson had never won on before Sunday. Now only four remain and Homestead is one of them.
I’m not rooting against Johnson to get his seventh championship, I’m just trying to make a case for someone else and keep hopes alive that Johnson isn’t going to just roll through the entire season with ease. Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski gave me some hope Sunday with comments after Sunday’s race and made a lot of sense.
“I think right now the Penske cars are probably the best when it comes to balance track to track,” Keselowski told reporters. “The Hendrick cars are probably the best where it takes power to run. These tracks (Michigan) are certainly one of those, and Kevin Harvick, his team is probably the fastest week in and week out.”
Harvick's team uses the Hendrick engines, which helps explain why he is so good this season. Even though Hendrick has won the past five races, we shouldn't forget about the Penske cars of Keselowski and Joey Logano - owners of three wins combined.
That horsepower advantage that Hendrick has will mean very little this weekend on the road course at Sonoma Raceway in Northern California, where it's more about the driver than any race on the season. Although, Hendrick's Jeff Gordon is one of the best road course drivers in NASCAR history with five wins at Sonoma and four others at Watkins Glen. However, the last time he won a road race was at Sonoma in 2006.
The No. 24 team used to spend a lot of time and effort into getting the perfect set-up for the two road courses, but because it represents only two races a season, they have used most of their efforts in the garage to perfecting their cars on down-force tracks, which is part of the reason why the entire Hendrick team, including Harvick's engine, is excelling right now.
Over the past nine seasons of racing at Sonoma there have been nine different winners. Prior to that stretch, it was the Gordon and Tony Stewart show as they combined to win seven of the previous nine. Some of the names that have won lately there aren’t typically known for their road course exploits. We’re at the point now where we have perhaps the greatest diversity on road course racing that we have ever seen. And we haven’t even seen road course ace Marcos Ambrose win here yet.
Ambrose is a two-time winner on the faster Watkins Glen layout, but has yet to win on the technical course at Sonoma with all its elevation changes. By no means is Sonoma's 1.99-mile 10 turn layout too tough for Ambrose, he just hasn’t had things fall his way. Still, he’s finished eighth or better in his last five starts and is the driver to beat on Sunday.
Harvick has been fast everywhere this season with his new Stewart-Haas team and there’s no reason to expect things to change this week. Harvick won at Watkins Glen in 2006 and he’s been consistently good at Sonoma with a career best second-place finish there in 2007.
Stewart is going to win soon and the road course would be an ideal spot for him to bounce back. He’s won seven times on the roads, including twice at Sonoma. He’s been runner-up there in two of the past five seasons, but hasn’t won since 2005.
Kurt Busch won in 2011, was third in 2012 and finished fourth last season. That's two different program with almost the same type of success. Now he's with his third different team and chances are he'll run well again.
Clint Bowyer captured a Sonoma win in 2012 and his 9.1 average finish on the track is second only to Gordon’s 8.1 average. Look for Bowyer to run well and there should be a wide variety of odds to choose from on him before final practices run on Friday. Qualifying is scheduled for Saturday.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #4 Kevin Harvick (8/1)
2) #15 Clint Bowyer (18/1)
3) #9 Marcos Ambrose (5/1)
4) #24 Jeff Gordon (7/1)
5) #41 Kurt Busch (7/1)