Toyota/Save Mart 350
June 19, 2019
By Micah Roberts
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Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway will be the first of three races on road courses this season giving us a chance to see the drivers make both left and right turns.
It's the 50th anniversary of Sonoma Raceway and to do a little something special commemorating the weekend, track officials have brought back "The Carousel" which has been bypassed by NASCAR since 1998. The course goes from 1.99-miles now to a 12-turn 2.52-mile layout as it was when the track opened in Sonoma's wine country in 1969. This week's 7/2 favorite (Bet $100 to win $350) to win, Kevin Harvick, had something to do with the change.
"Honestly this was a conversation that Marcus Smith (SMI CEO) and I had at lunch one day and I asked why we don’t just run The Carousel and how cool it would be to throw it back," Harvick said. "An hour later, he told me he talked to his guys and they were looking into it. Next thing you know we are running The Carousel. I love the fact they are changing it up. I think Watkins Glen could do the same thing."
Harvick is one of three active drivers to actually have experience racing on the old layout. Kyle Busch drove a Legends car there in 1998 and Jimmie Johnson drove it during a driving school session, but Harvick dates back to 1995 there. Harvick grabbed his three wins at Sonoma in three different series after changing to the 1.99-mile layout. His lone Cup Series win there came two years ago and last year he was runner-up.
Still, despite having the most experience, Harvick is still going to be prepping the unfamiliar layout in the simulator like most drivers.
“I was in the simulator last week and got lost a couple of times – forgot where to turn," Harvick said. "It is a lot different than I remember it from 1995. I told some of the guys in our organization that the last time I was there and ran this particular course, the course we have been running wasn’t even there. There was a mountain in the middle of the racetrack. A lot has changed. Running that portion of the racetrack, the lap time is longer and there are some different corners to deal with and, from (turn) 3B all the way through four, through The Carousel and the exit of it and what is a different turn seven than the one we have been racing, which was actually turn five."
Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer won at Sonoma in 2012 and his 11 top-fives on road courses are tied for the most among active drivers. He's not exactly a big fan of the changes this week.
“I’m a little bit torn on this,” said Bowyer who is 6/1 to win. “I was surprised they added The Carousel back to the layout. I’m kind of old-fashioned and thought, you know, if it isn’t broke, why fix it, why touch it? And I didn’t think that track was broke at all. I think the tire and stuff has gotten a little bit too good for a track like that, but I always have thought it’s been a great product for our sport. Who knows, maybe, it’ll make it better and it’s certainly going to make it a longer race.”
Bowyer has a big reason to not be happy because he's the best among active drivers at Sonoma with a 10th-place average finish in 13 starts and eight top-five finishes. He was third last season and runner-up in 2017 behind Harvick.
SHR has yet to win this season through 15 races, but this may be the week. And don't be surprised if it's another teammate with Daniel Suarez who grew up in Mexico go-karting. Turning left and right is more natural for him than several NASCAR regulars who grew up mostly on ovals. He's performed better at Watkins Glen with third and fourth-place finishes between his five Cup starts on the road courses. At 25/1 odds, he's probably the best value on the board because of his own skills coupled with having great SHR equipment.
And when looking at the race package being used the week -- no aero ducts with engines producing 750 horsepower, the cars aren't that much different from what they used last season and SHR was very good. Harvick has top-five finishes in his past two starts using this weeks package (Richmond, Dover).
Kurt Busch used to drive the SHR No. 41 that Suarez drives now and Busch drove it extremely well when making right turns. He's finished 12th or better in the past 13 road courses between Sonoma, Watkins Glen, and Charlotte. He won at Sonoma in 2011 and his 198 laps led between his 18 Cup starts is the most among active drivers. He gave an early preview to what he could do on the roads in 1999 when he won at Sonoma in the NASCAR Southwest Series.
I remember being a bit surprised in Las Vegas when I saw how good both Kurt and Kyle Busch were on the roads as they evolved into higher series on their way up. They were oval drivers in the bullring, but I would soon find out they worked hard in their younger years on their road skills.
The thing I really like about Kurt Busch this week on top of his road skills is the way his team gives him a great car every week with whatever race package NASCAR requires. His 9.7 average finish this season is the best of his career. In 2004 when he won the Cup Championship his average finish was 12.5.
Martin Truex Jr. won this race last season and probably should be the favorite based a few things such as three wins between his last 13 road starts. He's led laps in his last six road races. He's also won the past two races using this week's package (Richmond, Dover).
Another driver that learned to race the roads well is Denny Hamlin, who has led laps in five of his last seven road starts. He was runner-up at Sonoma in 2016 -- he should have won, and then came back to Watkins Glen six weeks later and took his first road course win in the Cup Series. He'd finish fourth-place in both 2017 road races and last season his worst finish was 13th among the three. He has top-fives in four of the five races using this package in 2019. Best of all is he's 14-to-1 to win.
I should note that Kyle Busch leads the series with four wins this season and has 14 top-10 finishes in 15 starts. He has nice 6/1 odds this week and leads all active drivers with four road course wins.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #1 Kurt Busch (10/1)
2) #19 Martin Truex Jr. (9/2)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (14/1)
4) #14 Clint Bowyer (6/1)
5) #4 Kevin Harvick (7/2)