Toyota/Save Mart 350
June 20, 2018
By Micah Roberts
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Grab your wine and cheese and let's go watch some NASCAR racing NorCal style. It's road racing time in beautiful Sonoma County where drivers take those big bulky stock cars and finally make some right turns after 15 races of exclusively making left turns this season. It's my favorite type of racing and a welcomed breath of fresh air from the ovals.
After a much needed weekend off for the NASCAR Cup Series, the drivers, teams, and fans come in refreshed this week for the 16th race of the season which hopefully will be sort of a reboot from the predictable happenings in the first 15 races.
This season we get a bit of a change where we'll be seeing races on three road courses or at least kind of. We'll get the traditional two road courses we're used to with Watkins Glen race happening Aug. 5, but during the Playoffs, we get a new deal with Charlotte Motor Speedway using its infield road course and part of the oval banking and calling it a "roval." It's supposed to be the best of both worlds with the required technical aspects of the road courses mixed in with the speed needed to win on an oval. The teams will be testing it next month.
We'll see how the Charlotte thing turns out, but I'll go ahead and say now that Sonoma is still my favorite of the courses because it's a more technical course with elevation changes that really test the driver's ability in ways either of the other road courses can't. Watkins Glen is a much faster track with longer straightaways.
Although Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick have combined to win 11 of the 15 races this season and all three have won at Sonoma in the past, this race also signifies a good chance for a non-elite driver to win.
However, the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook posted those three as the 4/1 co-favorites to win, and for good reason.
“We had strong performing road course cars last year,” said Truex, who led 25 laps last year before blowing an engine late. “We had the car to beat at Sonoma. We hit on something and had a ton of speed there. Our Furniture Row Racing team has been looking forward to getting back to Sonoma to finish what we almost completed last year.”
Truex won at Sonoma in 2013 while Kyle Busch's four road course wins -- two at Sonoma -- is the most among active drivers. And the other beast, Kevin Harvick, won at Sonoma last year followed by a Truex win at Watkins Glen. Really? This race isexpected to finish like 11 of the races this season with one of these guys? Just great.
I want some new blood in the winner's circle. I want a first-time winner on the season and I'm thinking about a couple just because of their road skills. They may not have the fastest car, but their skills of getting in and out of the turns fastest make up for having a slower car than Truex or Harvick. The driver means more on these road races than any other type of track, and Sonoma is the toughest. Watching drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Michael Waltrip and Bobby Labonte struggle so miserably at Sonoma was comical.
The hope for seeing a new face in the winner's circle rests within the fact that we've seen a different driver win at Sonoma the past nine seasons. The last multiple winner was Kyle Busch who won in 2008 and 2015. Here's a look at a couple drivers that keep could keep the streak going:
Kurt Busch: He has to wonder when his turn it is to win within his own team as Harvick has five wins and Bowyer now has two wins, but this might be his spot. He won at Sonoma in 2011 and he's been 12th or better in his last 10 road races which equates to a 6.9 average finish. He's turned himself into a great road racer, and I was miffed how because when I saw him racing and dominating as a teenager in Las Vegas it was always on the short track at the Bullring. But apparently, he spent quite a bit of time on the roads early on.
“Legends racing was big in the mid-90s in the Desert Southwest and they would let us run on the infield road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as well as the exterior road course there," Busch said. "We also ran road-course races at Buttonwillow (Raceway Park) and they had a street-course race in Los Angeles and they raced up in Sonoma. I was just kind of thrown into the fire with road-course racing, but I loved it from the first time I jumped on track.”
Denny Hamlin: He's the only driver in the series to have finished in the top-five of his last four road races the past two seasons, which includes a 2016 Watkins Glen win. He's developed into a really good road racer and his cars have been set-up perfect the last two years. In 2016 he led 33 laps and was on his way to winning his first Sonoma race but errored on his last turn and Tony Stewart took advantage and won what would be the final race of his career.
“Last time we visited Sonoma, we really had a great car, we just didn’t have quite enough to contend for a win at the end," Hamlin said. "If we can improve our qualifying effort (from last year) and make some slight set-up adjustments, I think we’ll be in an even better spot to go after a win this year.”
A.J.Allmendinger: He's probably the most excited to see a road course just because he becomes relevant again. He's got two only whacks to make the playoffs, Sonoma and Watkins Glen, and he knows it. His car is a jalopy on ovals but he turns into Lightning McQueen on the roads. His only career Cup win came at Wakins Glen in 2015.
“I love racing at Sonoma Raceway,” Allmendinger said. “It’s a racetrack where when we go there, we feel like we always have a chance to run up front and be in the top-five, maybe win the race. Sonoma is really hard on rear tires, so that’s something we always focus on in practice. We have some good notes from last year to help set up the car to save the rear tires, but we can always make improvements on our long-run speed. I think we’ll be good at Sonoma if we execute. Having a clean race and a good day on pit road will make for a great day. In these races, if you give yourself a chance, anything can happen. More than anything I focus on, winning is definitely the ultimate goal, but we have just got to go focus and execute for a whole weekend and get a great finish out of it in our Kroger ClickList Camaro ZL1. It’s a racetrack where we can really gain some points and have a good weekend.”
Normally Allmendinger is 200/1 to win races, but this week the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has him posted at 15/1 odds to win which is the perfect example of how legitimate of a candidate to win he really is.
Daniel Suarez: He's been at his best throughout his entire racing career on the road courses and when he got his first whack at it last season as a rookie he finished 16th at Sonoma and third at Watkins Glen where he led 14 laps. This is a driver that may present the best value due to having a solid set-up as Kyle Busch and Hamlin's teammate coupled with own driving skills.
Clint Bowyer: This dude is flying high on cloud nine as he's had an extra week to soak in his Michigan win, which was his second win of the season after last winning a race in 2012. One of those wins in 2012 was at Sonoma. In 12 career Sonoma starts he has seven top-five finishes, which is tied with Kurt Busch for the most among active drivers. Bowyer was runner-up last season in his first year driving the Stewart Haas Racing No. 14, the season after Stewart won at Sonoma in the No. 14.
“I don’t want to jinx myself, but Sonoma is my favorite racetrack,” Bowyer said. "I love that weekend. It’s a vacation for everybody involved. It’s a challenging racetrack. I’m good at it. You always look forward to going to tracks you’re good at. We’ve gotten this wave of confidence going at the moment. Hopefully, we can ride off to Sonoma and enjoy some success there, as well.”
I haven't called any driver my favorite since Davey Allison, but there's something about Bowyer that's always a reminder why I like NASCAR so much.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #41 Kurt Busch (10/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (4/1)
4) #19 Daniel Suarez (100/1)
5) #14 Clint Bowyer (8/1)