Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350
Marcos Ambrose, following his win at Watkins Glen in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
After two weeks of high speeds and flat out racing, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The 12-turn, 1.99-mile road course is the first test for the teams this season as they turn left and right.
Over the past few years, road course races have turned very aggressive, with more torn up racecars than some short track afternoons. These events also have a tendency to turn into fuel-mileage contests, with strategy playing a major role in how the race unfolds.
One driver that understands the importance of fuel conservation at Sonoma is Richard Petty Motorsports' Marcos Ambrose. The former Australian V-8 Supercar champion has long been known as a road course specialists, and nearly scored his first Sprint Cup Series victory at Sonoma in 2010.
After leading 35 of the 110 laps, Ambrose was attempting to save fuel under caution in the event’s waning laps by shutting his engine off and coasting around the circuit. When the pace car led the field up the hill past the start/finish line, Ambrose's car would not re-fire and dropped him back in the running order. The mistake was costly for Ambrose, who would have to wait until the 2011 race at Watkins Glen International to score that elusive first win.
This weekend, Ambrose heads back to Sonoma with much better equipment, the seventh-best average finish at the track, and is this week's NASCAR fantasy favorite.
Throughout the 2012 season, Ambrose has shown he is no longer simply a road course specialist. Sitting 17th in the series standings, he is coming off three finishes of 13th or better in the last three weeks. Despite a 32nd-place finish in Charlotte for an issue with the left front hub, the No. 9 Ford was among the fastest that weekend, as well.
Heading to one of his best tracks, Ambrose is confident in his team's ability to get the job done week-in and week-out.
“People know we’re around and it’s a good situation to be in,” he said. “I feel good about our team. I feel good about being part of the growth of Richard Petty Motorsports and I think that curve is continuing to go upwards. I think you’ve yet to see the best of us and you’ve yet to see the best of me.”
While Ambrose may enter the favorite, you can never count out five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon. The veteran driver has been nipping on the heels of solid finishes each week, but his season has had about as many twists and turns as this weekend's race.
Gordon has the best average finish among active drivers at Sonoma (8.7), and was second in this race last year. Celebrating his 20th season at the Sprint Cup level, Gordon is now the only Hendrick driver without a win this year, something that could change on Sunday.
Much like Ambrose, former open-wheel driver Juan Pablo Montoya is also considered a threat any time the Sprint Cup Series heads to the road course in Sonoma. Montoya went to Victory Lane in his first attempt at Sonoma in ’07, but has yet to record a top-5 finish since. While he has the second-best average finish (9.0), the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver was 22nd in last year's event.
While the 2012 season has been a struggle for Montoya, he is coming off an eighth-place finish last weekend at Michigan, only his second top 10 of the year. If Monotya can keep the car in one piece and crew chief Chris Heroy can play the right strategy, the No. 42 team could score some solid fantasy points.
Five Favorites: Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson
There's no telling what Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick are discussing. (ASP, Inc.)
Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer may not be the first driver you think of when it comes to road course racing, but the former dirt tracker is this weekend's undervalued pick of the week.
Although he has yet to score a win at Sonoma, Bowyer has the third-best average finish (11.2) with three top 5s and four top 10s in his last five trips out west.
Bowyer has also been fairly consistent over the past seven races. Since losing an engine in front of his hometown crowd in Kansas, Bowyer and his Brian Pattie-led team have recorded five top 10s, with their worst finish (13th) coming at Charlotte.
Pocono winner Joey Logano carried momentum into last weekend's race at Michigan, but ended the day with a wrecked racecar and a 35th-place finish. While Logano only has three starts at Sonoma, he is the defending pole sitter, and led five laps en route to a sixth-place showing.
This year, Logano has proven that previous statistics at tracks are not a great indication of how he will perform. Trying to put last week's disappointing finish behind him, he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff will focus on getting the No. 20 Toyota to handle well and power through the slow U-turn breaking zone in Turn 11.
Logano's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, also had a rough outing at Michigan. In fact, since scoring the win at Richmond and following it up with second-, fourth- and third-place runs in April and May, Busch has failed to finish better than 29th (at Dover, Pocono and Michigan), the victim of engine troubles that JGR has vowed to correct.
Despite his recent troubles, Busch is a skilled road course racer. He swept the roadies in 2008, was 11th in this race last year, and sat on the pole, led 49 and finished third at Watkins Glen last August.
This is a great week for Busch to get the bad luck monkey off his back and record a solid finish, leading to solid fantasy points.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick
How can last week's winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., be a darkhorse pick just one week later? Simple: Just look at Earnhardt's numbers at Sonoma, which is one of only three tracks on the Cup schedule where he has yet to deliver a top-10 finish (the other two are Homestead and Kentucky). In fact, in 12 starts, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has only five finishes inside the top 15. Last year's 41st-place finish was his worst of the entire season.
However, Earnhardt is carrying a ton of momentum enter Wine Country and has been one of the most consistent entries in 2012. While he most likely will not record his first Sonoma win, do not be surprised if the perennial fan favorite finishes well inside the top 10 for the first time in his career.
Fresh off a European trip to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Brian Vickers is back behind the wheel of the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota this weekend at Sonoma. Vickers tested with the team at Virginia International Raceway in preparation for the weekend.
“We ran very competitive laps times against some guys that are considered the road race experts,” he said. “So I am pretty pumped about that. I’ve had some success at Sonoma, too. The last being the pole in 2009 and leading a bunch of laps before getting caught up in an incident.”
Like everyone else, if Vickers can keep the fenders on the car, he could continue the solid runs the Rodney Childers-led team have built upon thus far in 2012.
Also consider Penske Racing's AJ Allmendinger, but keep in mind his poor luck throughout the season. A former open-wheel driver, Allmendinger has the chance to turn his season around, but the frustration could also continue.
Independent owner/driver Robby Gordon is back in a Cup car for only the third time in 2012. While he recorded two DNFs at Daytona and Phoenix, Gordon will be in his element this weekend at Sonoma, where he finished second in 2010. His aggressive driving style could be an issue throughout the race, but it could also lead to a good finish.
Kurt Busch is the defending race winner at Sonoma, and can never be considered a non-factor on the road courses, regardless of the equipment. However, the tumultuous past few weeks raise a major red flag with the elder Busch brother. Be sure to weigh the risk versus reward when considering this choice.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brian Vickers, AJ Allmendinger, Robby Gordon, Kurt Busch
Best Average Finish at Sonoma (Wins):
1. Jeff Gordon — 8.7 (5)
2. Juan Pablo Montoya — 9.0 (1)
3. Clint Bowyer — 11.2 (0)
4. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (2)
5. Ryan Newman — 12.4 (0)
6. Marcos Ambrose — 14.0 (0)
7. Jimmie Johnson — 14.7 (1)
8. Greg Biffle — 15.8 (0)
9. Kevin Harvick — 16.1 (0)
10. Carl Edwards — 16.6 (0)
* Mark Martin (one win, 11.9-place average finish) is not entered in this weekend's race. Brian Vickers will drive the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota.
Junior's title hopes, grading Michigan and road racing in Sonoma
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory celebration is long over and now it’s time to look ahead. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council were asked to look ahead on what Earnhardt’s victory means related to the title race and at this weekend’s race — the first race on a road course this season. Of course, members did have time to look back at Michigan and give that race a grade.
Here’s what members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had to say:
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF DALE EARNHARDT JR.’S VICTORY AT MICHIGAN?
56.2 percent said it’s a sign that he truly is a title contender this year 35.8 percent said it was nice but it’s only one win, let’s not get carried away 8.0 percent said it does not matter to me
What Fan Council members said:
• I am less impressed with the victory then I am his other numbers for the season so far. Twelve top 10s, six top 5s, 218 laps led, average finish of seventh, and he has completed every lap of competition this season, all in just 15 races. The extraordinary numbers that team has posted are Jimmie Johnson-esque and are remarkable for any driver. I may not be a Junior fan, but I believe that team is the best in the garage this year and may possibly do what I previously thought was impossible and win Junior a championship.
• Junior obviously has momentum right now, but let's all take a deep breath and realize how long the season is. We're “Pro-Junior” in our household, but I'm not gonna run out and get an 88 tattoo any time soon …
• Steve Letarte has put together a team that believes in themselves and they are staying consistent. They need to win more to compete for the title, but I believe they are on the right track.
• Consistent season so far + contending for wins + second in points + a win = title contender.
• Of course he is a title contender!! Have you looked at his stats this year???
• I feel like Smoke in this regard. Glad to see it happen, but give it a rest like it’s the second coming. With Hendrick equipment, he should win more than two points races in five years. If he runs well at Sonoma and Kentucky and even takes the points lead, then I would be more impressed.
• One win in the past four years in the best equipment (in) NASCAR . It’s quite sad that there was this much celebration over it.
• He's a virtual lock for the Chase now. I expect the team to take more chances and be a huge threat in the Chase. He's got the consistency down, and now has proven the team can win in dominating fashion.
• That was a strong showing for the 88. I think this season will finally shut the mouths of some of the naysayers.
• I like Junior, but one win doesn't mean he's going to win the championship this year. Let's wait and see what the future brings.
• Don't understand all the hype! Hasn't proved anything in his career. If he didn't have the name Earnhardt, he probably would be in the 51 car!
• I thought he was a title contender even before the win Sunday (and this is coming from a non-Junior fan). He and Letarte seem to have great chemistry with each other, (and) with guys like Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards having somewhat off years Junior could definitely pull out a championship and probably spark off victory riots across the country.
GRADING SUNDAY’S RACE AT MICHIGAN
57.1 percent called it Good 29.8 percent called it Great 10.2 percent called it Fair 2.8 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Are you kidding me? Junior led almost half the race and won going away. And Kyle Busch kicked rocks while his brother kept spinning himself out. It doesn't get any better.
• When the post-race excitement matches the pre-race excitement with equally exciting racing in between, then it's a pretty great race.
• It was a lot better than I thought it would be. With all the speed/tire problems leading up to the green flag, I was afraid we were in for another gas mileage race.
• I will enjoy Michigan more when the groove widens back out to the wall
• Being there was great, even with the rain delay. The place was electric. Especially at the end of the race, I have never seen so many excited people. It was like the section I was in was holding its breath and then went crazy.
• I thought it was a very good race and think NASCAR made the right decision in the tire change.
• I attend this race every year and this one felt “racier” than normal. Perhaps the suspense from all the pre-race unknowns — tires, engines, speeds — carried over into the race.
• I thought it was a good race. Suspense because no one knew what the tires were going to do, adding to that the rain washed all the rubber off the track. The race itself was just solid.
• Today's race was the first I unhesitatingly checked “Great.” There was passing all over the place, racing three- and four-wide, hard racing side-by-side with give and go. No phantom cautions, (the) cautions (were) called when necessary, no speeding debacles or major issues with tires or fuel. I also have to give props to NASCAR for making sure this didn't turn into “Indy Tire Fiasco Part II.” They saw the probability of the race either being run 10 to 15 laps at a time or 30 cars hitting the wall at 200 mph due to tire blowouts. I'm more than willing to watch cars running at slightly slower speeds if it saves injury and/or equipment.
• Pretty interesting race with lots of storylines: Dale’s win, JGR’s tumultuous day, Kurt Busch’s bad luck continuing, tires blistering, fast speeds and other things, as well. I enjoyed it even though my driver wasn't a contender for most of the race.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
SONOMA IS NEXT ON THE CUP SCHEDULE. ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO A RACE ON A ROAD COURSE?
74.1 percent said Yes 25.9 percent said No
What Fan Council members said:
• I used to not even watch the road courses, but during the last few years they have turned into must-see races. Always tons of action, and it’s nice to see the drivers out of their element.
• I do not think stock cars should race on road courses. So, this and Watkins Glen will be on the bottom of my list for the ones I'm excited about watching.
• Yes … It's one of only two tracks left with beatin' and bangin' action.
• Road courses were not on the top of my list of races to watch, but after attending one I really enjoy them now. I will be at Road America, but I will DVR the Cup race and watch it when I get home.
• The road course races are my favorite two of the season. I wish they would run Laguna Seca, Road America or maybe a street course.
• Not really looking forward to it. It will very likely be a wreckfest and I know a lot of people like that, but I'd much rather see good hard racing. Beating and banging I'm all for, it as long as no one gets sent into the fence.
• YES!! Road courses break up the NASCAR monotony. There is always more action on the track than any other race, plus you have 43 different pit and fuel strategies. A road course is a race I can watch all the way through, unlike most other races that I watch in one hour or less on my DVR.
• Road courses have replaced what Bristol once was: An excuse to drive like an idiot and chalk it up to good, hard racing. This is the first of two “off weeks” for me as a fan.
• Sonoma and Watkins Glen have replaced Bristol and Martinsville on the schedule as the most exciting races of the year!
• A solid YES! Start, stop, shift, turn left and turn RIGHT! A real challenge to see who is the best!
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
To break one trend, Marcos Ambrose knows he’ll likely endure another when the Sprint Cup Series competes at Sonoma in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday in the first of two races at road courses this season.
Ambrose, who won at Watkins Glen last year for his first Cup victory, seeks to break a string of seven different winners on road courses. To do so, he’ll have to avoid the litany of trouble that lurks on the tight, 12-turn road course.
The last couple of races on the Northern California course have featured beating and banging synonymous with short-track racing.
“It is a technically challenging track, it’s hard to make passes,” Ambrose says. “Even if it’s clean, it’s very easy to make contact.
“The drivers understand that you’re going to have to do a few bump-and-runs, and you’re going to have to make contact to win the race. We’re all prepared for that, and we all understand the consequences of that.”
Ambrose, who is 17th in the point standings, needs a victory to have a chance at a wildcard spot in the Chase.
“We still feel like we’ve got a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races,” he says. “We’ve got speed. We just have to convert those speed runs into good results.”
Ambrose has finished between ninth and 14th in four of the last five races. He goes to Sonoma with higher expectation since his racing background is in road racing.
After finishing 42nd in his first time at Sonoma in 2008, Ambrose has not finished worse than sixth since. He led 35 laps in 2010 but lost the lead when, as he was saving fuel, he turned the engine off and couldn’t restart it under caution. A few cars passed him when he stopped on course and NASCAR placed him in the lineup where he regained caution speed. Only seven laps remained and the mistake cost Ambrose a chance to win. That helped Jimmie Johnson win and continue the streak of different winners on road courses.
On the other road course at Watkins Glen, Ambrose has recorded four top 5s in four Cup starts and owns a 2.2-place finish.
Kyle Busch started the different-winner streak when he won at Watkins Glen in ’08. Kasey Kahne won at Sonoma and Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen in ’09, while Jimmie Johnson was victorious at Sonoma in 2010 and Juan Pablo Montoya was first at Watkins Glen. Last season, Kurt Busch won at Sonoma and Ambrose won at Watkins Glen.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane in Michigan. (ASP, Inc.)
ATTENTION GETTER The question was straightforward, leaving no room to hide: “Do you think Jimmie Johnson is better than you?”
“No,” was the first word Dale Earnhardt Jr. uttered after he was asked that question in April at Kansas. “He’s a hell of a racecar driver, but I feel like I’m the best. I think that’s the way you have to feel. I feel that I’m smarter than everybody and I can drive better than everybody and I know a lot of people ain’t going to agree with that, but I feel pretty strong about it.”
When car owner Rick Hendrick heard Earnhardt’s comment, it struck him.
“He had not said anything close to that before,’’ Hendrick said Tuesday in a teleconference with reporters. “He, as a matter of fact, would say, ‘Man, Jimmie is unbelievable, Jeff is unbelievable, Kasey is really fast.’ But when he came out and said, ‘I'm getting the job done, I’m the “A” horse in the stable right now,’ and felt good about saying that, that just showed me that he was at max confidence.”
LOOKING AHEAD Nationwide points leader Elliott Sadler is focused on a championship this season but he also admits he’d liked to make it back to Cup, noting he has “some unfinished business there.”
Sadler, 37, ran in Cup from 1998-2010 before getting a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series in 2011 with Kevin Harvick Inc. Sadler moved to Richard Childress Racing this season when Harvick’s team merged with RCR.
“Of course I want to go back,” Sadler said of Cup. “Have to be in the right situation and right team to make that happen. Hopefully, one day it will. I’m not going to lie, it feels good to outrun some of the guys I outrun on Saturday and turn the TV on Sunday and watch those same guys run in the top 5 all day. I’m like, ‘We just outran them yesterday in the same equipment.’”
NEW LOOK Austin Dillon recently started wearing a cowboy hat regularly. Dillon’s cowboy hat is from the same company that makes Richard Petty’s cowboy hats. So, how did Dillon get on this habit?
“My hero is John Wayne,” says Dillon, grandson of car owner Richard Childress. “I used to watch John Wayne movies with my grandfather while we were out at Montana. Got a lot of pictures of when we were younger, me and my brother (Ty), both going camping and horseback riding and wearing our cowboy hats. I wore it at Texas last year (at) a Truck race. I have a country music singer who is one of my buddies, Tim Dugger. He’s like, ‘Why don’t you wear that hat?’ I started wearing it again. Now, it’s like a regular ballcap to me. I have fun wearing it wherever we go.”
SUMMER VACATION Mark Martin won’t race again until Indianapolis in late July, as he skips the next four races.
Brian Vickers, who raced last weekend at LeMans, will drive the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing car this weekend at Sonoma. Michael Waltrip returns to the seat to drive the car at Kentucky and Daytona before Vickers drives the car at New Hampshire next month.
Vickers already has competed twice for the team, finishing fifth at Bristol and 18th at Martinsville. His remaining races after Sonoma and New Hampshire will be Watkins Glen (Aug.), Bristol (Aug.), New Hampshire (Sept.) and Martinsville (Oct.). Waltrip’s remaining race after Kentucky and Daytona will be Talladega (Oct.). Martin will do the other races.
PIT STOPS With the Cup Series headed to the road course at Sonoma this weekend, there’s a few drivers fans don’t normally see who will be running. Robby Gordon is among them. He’s back for the first time since Phoenix (he failed to qualify at Las Vegas and Auto Club Speedway). Boris Said is scheduled to drive the No. 32 car for owner Frank Stoddard at Sonoma this weekend. ... Points leader Matt Kenseth has scored nine top-10 finishes in the last 10 races, but Sonoma is not one of his better tracks. He’s had one top-10 finish in 12 races there.