Toyota/Save Mart 350
June 21, 2017
By Micah Roberts
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My favorite type of racing has always been on a road course whether asphalt or dirt watching BMX, go-karts, motorcycles, Formula One, Indy Cars or NASCAR's stock cars. Nothing against racing on ovals, but making 1,000 left turns while going in circles can get a little repetitive. And to me, the true mark of a great driver is how they perform on the roads when they have to also make right turns.
The two-race road course season starts Sunday at Sonoma Raceway located within the scenic wine country in northern California. There's nothing quite like it on the tour just because of the scenery and the drivers all take advantage of their surroundings.
“It’s a fun weekend for everyone in the garage area,” said 2012 Sonoma winner Clint Bowyer. “It’s almost like vacation, it really is for everybody — the wives, the girlfriends – they all go on wine tours, we get done with practice and have our hands full with a complete mess on our hands. Nonetheless, everybody is having a lot of fun.”
Yes, spas, wineries and total tranquility despite these big heavy stock cars making some serious noise over the weekend. It's beautiful
So let's do the double date thing. Get the girls, grab a blanket, fill the picnic basket up with a variety of nuts and cheeses and I'll grab the bottles of wine and get us entry into the track. We'll find a nice spot on top one of Sonoma Raceway's rolling hills and we'll watch NASCAR in a way like you've never imagined stock car racing could be viewed.
Sunday's race at Sonoma's 1.99-mile, 10-turn course will have a different feel to it because there are no more true road aces in the series. There are some pretty good road drivers, but the road racing talent is definitely weaker than its been in the past. It's a changing of an era and new guys will have to step up. We no longer have Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya in the series and we saw the last of Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon last season who combined to win 17 road course races. Even the retired Carl Edwards had a road course win and was getting to close ace status.
What we're left with now is a bunch of young guns with not a lot of experience on the roads. Kyle Busch has four road course wins making him the active leader. No other driver has more than one win between Sonoma and Watkins Glen. That absolutely blows my mind.
I'm combining the two road courses just as a reference to show just how much talent the series has lost over the past four seasons. But the reality is that Sonoma and Watkins Glen are as different as Martinsville and Talladega are among the left-turn only tracks. Watkins Glen has long straights and is much faster while Sonoma is the more technical course with rolling hills and 160 feet of elevation changes. Edwards won the pole at both tracks last season and the speed disparities give a great example of the track differences. Sonoma's pole speed was 95.7 mph while Watkins Glen was 126.5 mph.
Stewart won this race last season for the final win of his career and Kyle Busch won his second Sonoma race in 2015. In 2014 Edwards won this race, and he's gone. Only six active drivers have ever won at Sonoma and I'm looking at two of those as top contenders and I'm looking for two of the older dogs in the series to try and get their first victory there. Three of those four drivers come from the Stewart Haas Racing.
Clint Bowyer, who took over Stewart's car, has an 11.5 average finish over his career which is the best among active drivers.
“Not in a million years would I have imagined this success,” Bowyer said of Sonoma. “After the first couple stabs at it, I was relatively good out there. I struggled a lot at Watkins Glen but always was able to find pretty good speed and get settled in and get comfortable at Sonoma. It has been good to me, it’s a fun racetrack. It’s a short track of road-course racing and it just kind of fits my driving style.”
I was hoping for at least 12/1 odds with Bowyer, but it doesn't appear like it will happen.
Kevin Harvick has a career-best second-place at Sonoma in 2007, but has finished sixth and fourth in the past two races there. Kurt Busch won at Sonoma in 2011 and was second behind his brother in 2015.
I like those three guys to be the new guard in road racing and I also like Denny Hamlin, who burst onto the road scene loudly last year by finishing second to Stewart at Sonoma and winning at Watkins Glen. He actually had the Sonoma race won but blew it on the last turn. Hard to believe that Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't won through 15 races, but this might be the spot with Kyle Busch being the favorite to win. Hamlin probably has the best value on the Westgate SuperBook's board at 18/1 odds.
A.J. Allmendinger has established that he deserves to be considered one of the best road racers, but there's no way I'm taking only 8/1 on him in that No. 47. He has a Watkins Glen win under his belt for his only career win, but in eight career starts at Sonoma he has a 20.9 average finish with no top-fives. No thanks.
A few decades ago we used to see some really high class road course ringers like Ron Fellows and Boris Said take over regular cars for the road races to get the team more points, and more cash prizes by finishing well. We don't see it as much any more, but the ringer to take notice of this weekend is Billy Johnson who will take over Richard Petty Racing's famed No. 43. Johnson, from San Clemente, CA, had three wins in the Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series.
“We are so excited about Billy Johnson making his Cup debut," said Dave Pericak, global director for Ford Performance. "He drove great for us in Le Mans this past weekend, has been a champion for us in the past in the GT350, and he’s been one of our development drivers for a while,” .
Johnson has great road racing instincts and should be expected to fare well in this new era of road racers. The SuperBook is giving him plenty of respect at 60/1 odds. Look at those odds and then consider that the fourth leg of Stewart Haas Racing, Danica Patrick, is 500/1 to win.
Another driver I'll be keeping an eye on during Friday's practice will be rookie Daniel Suarez, who is listed at 100/1 odds. Suarez began his career karting on courses and also had plenty of success on the roads from his days in NASCAR's Mexico Series. He took over the Edwards car, which has been amazing on roads the past few years.
Top-5 Finish Prediction
1) #14 Clint Bowyer (8/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (18/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
4) #41 Kurt Busch (7/1)
5) #4 Kevin Harvick (7/1)