Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's GEICO 400
Defending Chicago race-winner Tony Stewart. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2012 regular season may have been put in the books last weekend in dramatic fashion at Richmond International Raceway, and the Chase for the Sprint Cup may get underway at Chicagoland Speedway, but for NASCAR fantasy players the season simply rolls on to the sweeping 1.5-mile track in Joliet, Ill.
While most fantasy leagues will continue without any change in format, the mindset of the 12 drivers battling for the title and the 31 “other” drivers in the field will certainly change.
Although most are reluctant to admit it – you often hear them say, “We’ll keep doing the same thing we have all year,” – there is no doubt that those in the Chase will be gunning for wins and maximum points each and every weekend.
While the Chase drivers will steal the majority of the spotlight the next 10 races, there are a number of those on the outside looking in that can shake up the finishing order week-to-week. Some are looking for redemption for missing this year’s Chase, others are working on setups and plans for the 2013 season, while still others will be out there proving their worth to potential rides and sponsorship dollars.
In essence, the next 10 weeks will be a mixed-bag of agendas with high-intensity racing. It will be tough to top last year’s epic battle to the final laps, but if any Chase class could do it, I bet this one can.
However, before we get too wrapped up Chase talk, it’s time to look at this weekend’s race at Chicagoland Speedway.
After 10 years of hosting NASCAR Sprint Cup races, the 2011 trip to Chicagoland Speedway marked the first time it opened the Chase. Defending series champion Tony Stewart turned his season around then and there by saving enough fuel to score his first of five Chase wins.
Much like last season, Stewart enters the Chase struggling to keep pace with the competition. Since his third win of the season came in July at Daytona, the former champion has just two top 5s and three top 10s – not exactly the type of momentum you want heading into the Chase.
However, if last year proved anything, it’s that Stewart has the opportunity to come out swinging in Chicago. The defending champ leads all drivers in victories at the 1.5-mile tri-oval (three) and at 8.7, has the best average finish among active drivers.
If he and crew chief Steve Addington are able to put the struggles of the summer months behind them, bring a solid setup to the track and play the strategy correctly, it will be hard to bet against Stewart.
That said, once the Chase gets underway it is also nearly impossible to bet against the five-time series champion, Jimmie Johnson. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet leads the series in Chase wins (20) and has an average finish of 9.0 in the playoffs. With the third-best average finish (10.0) at Chicagoland Speedway — and bringing the car that dominated at both Dover and Indianapolis — Johnson should also be among the favorites this weekend.
With all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the Chase, perhaps the driver you want to watch out for this weekend is veteran Jeff Gordon. The four-time champion earned the final wild card spot in dramatic fashion on Saturday in Richmond by out-racing Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch when it mattered most.
The 2012 season has been one of up and downs for the No. 24 team, but throughout the struggles and poor luck, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the team have provided fast racecars. Gordon enters the first race of the Chase with his sights set on a fifth title, and with a win and a 10th-place average finish at Chicagoland, he will be tough to beat.
Five Favorites: Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon
Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. (ASP, Inc.)
Even though Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer enters the Chase fresh off a victory in Richmond, he remains an undervalued pick this weekend in Chicago. While many look at Johnson, Stewart and Denny Hamlin as favorites for the title, Bowyer and his MWR teammate, Martin Truex Jr., could sneak in and truly mix it up in the championship battle – starting immediately
Bowyer’s No. 15 team has been consistently solid through the summer and early fall, scoring the Richmond win along with three top-5 and six top-10 finishes since the July race in Daytona. Also, don’t forget that Bowyer certainly knows how to open the Chase in dramatic fashion, having won the opening race at Loudon in 2010. With the fourth-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Chicagoland, Bowyer could easily thrust himself into title contention this weekend and, at the very least, score solid fantasy points for your team.
For Truex, the 2012 season has been one of renewed confidence and opportunity. Although he is still battling a winless drought that dates to June 2007, he and the No. 56 team led by crew chief Chad Johnston have consistently contended each week.
With only one top 10 finish at Chicagoland Speedway (2008), Truex will have to buck the trend of years past and continue to do the things that got them into the Chase.
Aside from all the Chase contenders, one driver you will want to watch this weekend is Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman. Not a part of the championship battle, Newman is one of those driving to court sponsors for next season. With one win, two top 5s and six top 10s at Chicagoland Speedway, he could mix things up and prove to be an undervalued fantasy start.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Joey Logano
It’s not usually a good thing when a driver thanks you in Victory Lane for wrecking him, but that is exactly what Bowyer did to Juan Pablo Montoya Saturday night in Richmond.
Struggling through his worst year since his sophomore season in 2008, Montoya has only two top-10 finishes thus far in 2012. After team owner Chip Ganassi made drastic internal changes within his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing shop during the offseason, the thought was the company would return to the winning ways it experienced in 2010. To the contrary, both Montoya and Jamie McMurray have essentially been also-rans throughout the year. Of late, Montoya has been a target of criticism among many drivers, as he has been involved in multiple incidents the last few weeks.
Yet with the season winding down, Montoya heads to Chicagoland Speedway on the outside of the Chase looking in, and attempting to salvage something of his dismal season. With the eighth-best average finish (14.6) in Chicago, the Colombia native may have a rare top-10 showing – if he can stay out of trouble, of course.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola, Danica Patrick
Best Average finish at Chicagoland (Wins):
1. Tony Stewart – 8.7 (3)
2. Jeff Gordon – 10.0 (1)
3. Jimmie Johnson – 10.0 (0)
4. Clint Bowyer – 10.2 (0)
5. Kevin Harvick – 10.4 (2)
6. Matt Kenseth – 12.3 (0)
7. Mark Martin – 12.5 (1)
8. Juan Pablo Montoya – 14.6 (0)
9. Kyle Busch – 14.7 (1)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 14.8 (1)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Northeast this weekend as it hits Watkins Glen International for the Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen. The second of two road course races this season, teams will have to adjust to turning both left and right, carrying high speeds and preparing for heavy braking with multiple elevation changes and opposite-side pit stops.
Always a challenge, some in the garage have excelled at the road course events while others have struggled mightily. While road racing experience and an open-wheel background may have made a significant difference in years past, the level of competition has evened out of late.
Track position, however, has always been a major factor in deciding a winner at Watkins Glen. Starting up front and staying there is one of the biggest keys to a successful day at the Glen. In the 29 Cup races here, 19 have been won from the top-5 starting spots — so pay attention Saturday’s qualifying.
Last year, race winner Marcos Ambrose used both road course experience and a solid starting spot to earn his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory. Always one of the strongest drivers at Watkins Glen, Ambrose leads the field in terms of average finish, with an impressive 2.3.
In fact, in his four starts at the Glen, Ambrose has failed to finish worse than third. In addition, the Australian-native has won three of the four Nationwide Series races he has run.
Given his prior success at Watkins Glen, Ambrose is definitely among the top 5 favorites in this week's fantasy outlook, but he is not the favorite. That belongs to a determined, hard-nosed, skilled road course driver known as “Rowdy.”
While Ambrose scored the victory in last year's event, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch that led the most laps (49 of 92). Although he led the field to the green flag on a final green-white-checker finish, Busch was muscled out of the way by Ambrose and Brad Keselowski, eventually settling in at the third spot. With one of the best cars that day, the third-place finish was a tough pill to swallow for the 2008 Watkins Glen winner.
Heading into this weekend's race, Busch is in need of not only a solid finish, but a win. After a disappointing 33rd-place finish last weekend at Pocono, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota is currently fourth in the wild card standings behind Kasey Kahne (2 wins), Jeff Gordon (1) and Ryan Newman (1).
Following the wreck at Pocono, Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team know if they want to be a part of the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup they have to win their way in. One of the most dangerous teams when it comes to recording a string of wins, the JGR driver admits their season struggles give them little hope. Despite having one win, six top 5s and nine top 10s, Busch also has eight finishes of 23rd or worse, including three DNFs.
Yet, if there was one driver and team that could turn their luck around in the final five regular-season races, it’s this one. Already a former winner at the Glen, Busch has an average finish of 9.3 (fourth best) at Watkins Glen and has finished in the top 10 in six of his seven Cup starts.
With playoff implications on the line and one of his best tracks in front of him, look for Busch and the No. 18 team to employ the right strategy and have a strong enough car to best the rest.
Among those Busch will have to beat is last week's winner at Pocono, Jeff Gordon.
Now in the thick of the Chase wild card battle after winning the rain-shortened race Sunday afternoon, Gordon has momentum on his side and is eager to celebrate his 20th year in the Sprint Cup Series by making the Chase. Although he admits the No. 24 team has struggled to find speed over the past decade at the Glen, that momentum and confidence can go a long way for a driver that could use another win in the next five races.
Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart
Sonoma winner Clint Bowyer. (ASP, Inc.)
The last time the Sprint Cup Series hit the road course, Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer earned his first win for the company in Sonoma, Calif.
While Bowyer has not fared as well in the past at Watkins Glen (he has only one top 10 and an average finish of 21.3), his crew chief Brian Pattie has victories in all three NASCAR touring series here.
Currently 10th in the standings, Bowyer and the No. 15 team are on the edge of the Chase cut-off spot. Bringing the winning car from Sonoma, Pattie knows it will take a different setup than earlier in the year to be successful on Sunday.
“Sonoma is slower speeds and probably closer to setting a car up for Martinsville,” Bowyer says. "Watkins Glen is big and fast. It has longer breaking zones and much higher speeds, so the setups are a lot different. If you bring the same setup that we used to win at Sonoma to Watkins Glen, (it) would be like taking a car built and setup for Martinsville and trying to use it for Dover. It’s that much different.”
With a confident crew chief, an undervalued road-course racer behind the wheel and Chase implications all around them, expect the No. 15 team to have a strong day and possibly contend for the win.
Five Undervalued Picks: Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick
Much like this week's undervalued pick, the darkhorse pick for Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 comes out of the Michael Waltrip Racing stable. Back in the car this weekend for the fifth time in 2012, Brian Vickers is looking to continue his success behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota.
Fourth in the first road course race of the year in Sonoma, Vickers has quietly become a much better road racer over the years, and has found success in the No. 55 car in his first four starts with the team (fifth, 18th, fourth, 15th).
While Vickers has only one top 10 at the Glen (eighth, 2005), he has finished 18th or better in his last three trips to the Finger Lakes region. With his success this season in the No. 55 and the budding potential of MWR in 2012, look for Vickers to stand out as the darkhorse pick of the week.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Brian Vickers, Joey Logano, Jeff Burton, Sam Hornish Jr., Kurt Busch
Best Average Finish at Watkins Glen (Wins/Starts)
1. Marcos Ambrose — 2.2 (1/4)
2. Tony Stewart — 7.1 (5/13)
3. Carl Edwards — 8.7 (0/7)
4. Kyle Busch — 9.3 (1/7)
5. Brad Keselowski — 11.0 (0/2)
6. Juan Pablo Montoya — 11.4 (1/5)
7. Kevin Harvick — 12.9 (0/11)
8. Jimmie Johnson — 14.2 (0/10)
9. Martin Truex Jr. — 14.3 (0/6)
10. Jeff Gordon — 14.5 (4/19)
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Pennsylvania 400
Fan- and Pennell-favorite (for Pocono), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Pocono Mountains for the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. When the series last hit the 2.5-mile oval in June, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano that went to Victory Lane, leading 49 of the 160 laps and moving veteran Mark Martin out of the lead in the closing laps.
As the series heads back to Pocono, Logano is back in the rumor mill with his name being mentioned as a potential candidate for the No. 22 Penske Racing ride for 2013. While said rumor mill churns and silly season heats up, it is important to remain focused on the job at hand, and that is winning races — and for you, your weekly fantasy match up.
Last weekend at Indianapolis, it was five-time champion Jimmie Johnson that put on a dominant performance to earn his fourth Brickyard 400 trophy. The No. 48 car was the class of the field all day, with few cars even in the same zip code (to borrow a phrase).
This week, Johnson leads all drivers in average finish (8.8) and has two victories at Pocono. While he failed to lead a lap in June, the five-time series champion finished fourth. With the team looking as if it is rounding into championship form, it will be hard to pick against Johnson.
However, the two-time Pocono winner is not this week's fantasy favorite (although he is among the top five). That honor goes to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After his fourth-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis, Earnhardt took over the points lead from Matt Kenseth. Leading the championship standings for the first time since 2004, Earnhardt is enjoying his best season in years, but is still hungry for wins before the Chase field is reset for the final 10 races of the season.
In June, Earnhardt Jr. led 36 of the 160 laps at Pocono before finishing a disappointing eighth. One of the strongest cars that afternoon, crew chief Steve Letarte called his driver to pit road late in the race, concerned about making it to the end on fuel. When Logano and others on the same strategy stretched it to the end, Earnhardt understood it was too early in the season to start taking gambles and losing a host of points.
With six races left before the Chase field is set, Earnhardt is now in a position to gamble for wins. Hungry for victories and continuing his consistent ways, look for Earnhardt — who has finishes of sixth, ninth and eighth in his last three Pocono starts — to score his second victory of the season.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Tony Stewart
Carl Edwards ... still smiling (ASP, Inc.)
To say the 2012 season has been a disappointment for Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards would qualify as the understatement of the year. After losing last year's championship battle to Tony Stewart in a tie-breaker, Edwards and the No. 99 team have been off the mark in 2012, currently enduring a winless streak that dates back to March 2011 (53 races ago).
To make matters worse, Edwards has a new crew chief, Chad Norris, atop the pit box calling the shots while long-time pit boss Bob Osborne handles personal health issues away from the track.
Coming in at one of the most crucial times of the season, Norris now has the task of getting the near-champion into the Chase. Sitting 12th in the championship standings, Edwards is on the outside looking in, as Kyle Busch (1 win) and Kasey Kahne (2) currently hold the two Chase wild card spots.
Following another poor finish in Indy — this time caused by an engine issue — Edwards proclaimed they are done points racing and “officially racing only for wins” over the next six weeks.
“I think it will involve lots of pushing on the right pedal and turning left and going as fast as possible, Edwards said. “We have to take chances. We have to go race. We can do that; we can race like that. It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. We just go race for wins. I wouldn’t bet against us. We can do it.”
With two wins, five top 5s, seven top 10s and an average finish of 13.6 at Pocono, this weekend provides a good locale for Edwards to get started on his quest for wins and a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.
In June, Edwards started the race from the outside of the front row, but was hit by pole-sitter Denny Hamlin in the first corner of the first lap and was forced to race his way through the field, placing 11th. Bringing the same car to the track this weekend, Edwards will be looking to finally turn his season before it's too late.
Also struggling to keep his Chase hopes alive is four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. Much like Edwards, Gordon's only hope of making into the final championship battle is to win, win, win.
While Gordon has finished inside the top 12 in the last six races, and advancing from 22nd to 15th in the standings, it is simply not enough for the veteran driver. However, there is no Chase for the fantasy racer, meaning you should not hesitate selecting him for the squad.
Gordon has been putting up solid numbers of late, and with time running out before the Chase field is set, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson will be doing all they can to include themselves in the elusive 12-driver field. With the third-best average finish at Pocono (10.4), look for the No. 24 car to be among the best cars in Sunday's race. While a solid finish may not go far in terms of Gordon's championship hopes, it may go a long way in determining this week's fantasy match up.
Five Undervalued Picks: Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer
The last time the Sprint Cup Series raced at Pocono Raceway, it did so without former champion Kurt Busch. Suspended from NASCAR competition following a post-race incident with a reporter at Dover, Busch had to sit out the 14th race of the season while the rest of the competition broke the new track surface in.
Although Busch was not in the race, his Phoenix Racing team finished 21st in the with David Reutimann behind the wheel.
Despite a rocky 2012 season, Busch owns the 10th-best average finish at Pocono (15.5). In a great showing with his former team, Penske Racing, the former champion sat on the pole once and finished second and third in both 2011 events.
If he can keep the car out of trouble, the team can get the job done on pit road — and if the engine lasts the full 400 miles — look for Busch to score a decent finish, which could make the difference for your fantasy team.
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind situation at Busch's former team, Penske Racing, as it has been forced to deal with the suspension of AJ Allmendinger. Stepping into the ride and getting a much-unexpected second chance has been Sam Hornish Jr.
Thrust into an awkward situation, Hornish has made the best of things to date and has been named the driver of the No. 22 for the “foreseeable future” by team owner Roger Penske. Perhaps auditioning for his future behind the wheel of the No. 22, Hornish scored a 22nd-place finish in Loudon and a 16th-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis.
Now four races into this unexpected venture, Hornish and the entire team head to Pocono as a bunch focused on working together as a cohesive unit and producing good results.
Perhaps no better track could come for Hornish and the Todd Gordon-led team. Hornish considers Pocono to be among his favorite tracks on the schedule, with one top 5, two top 10s and an average finish of 19.9.
“I’ve raced there enough that I can go to that track with a lot of confidence,” he says. “I think I can handle the compromising challenge pretty well. I think that there's a lot of guys that don't like going there, so they've already got this negative opinion about it. Their attitude is probably not in the right place.”
With this team finally coming together behind Hornish and his confidence level high, look for them to record a respectable finish.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, Regan Smith
Best Average Finish at Pocono (Wins/Starts):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 8.8 (2/21)
2. Denny Hamlin — 9.3 (4/13)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.4 (5/39)
4. Mark Martin — 11.1 (3/51)
5. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (2/27)
6. Ryan Newman —12.7 (1/21)
7. Carl Edwards — 13.6 (2/15)
8. Matt Kenseth — 13.9 (0/25)
9. Kevin Harvick — 14.0 (0/23)
10. Kurt Busch — 15.5 (2/22)
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.