Geoffrey Miller breaks down the best fantasy options for the Toyota-Save Mart 350
Tony Stewart: Get him while he's hot! (ASP, Inc.)
To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Geoffrey Miller will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List. The main picks are designed to make optimal use of Yahoo!’s nine-start maximum rule over the course of the season. The “also consider” section ranks unmentioned drivers strictly by expected result without consideration of start limitations.
The NASCAR road course races have become some of the best on the circuit each season thanks to the absurdity of NASCAR's heavy, over-powered cars trying to work delicately around tight, left and right turns. Road course racer Andy Lally recently said on Twitter that NASCAR is his favorite road course vehicle because it “handles like a school bus with the power of the space shuttle.” This week at Sonoma Raceway sounds fun!
Jump in, make your picks and, hopefully, make us look like we know what we’re talking about … if you took advantage of the free advice last week, you’ve got a race-win under your belt.
A-List (Pick two, start one) Tony Stewart
Just when we were ready to write off Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing bunch, he’s reeled off four top-10 finishes (a win included) in the last four races. He’s now leaped to 10th in points and figures to pile on this weekend at the Sonoma road course. Stewart leads all A-List drivers in the last eight years at Sonoma with an average running position of 10th.
Although he hasn’t won there since 2005, he’s picked up four top-5 finishes in the last five races and would've had a fifth in 2011, but wound up stuck on top of a tire barrier, courtesy of Brian Vickers. Obligatory note: Vickers is racing this weekend, too.
Anyone who has paid attention to NASCAR’s road races in the last several years knows Jeff Gordon’s status as “King of the Road” has long since faded. However, banking on Gordon as a smart fantasy pick for Sunday is the intelligent play.
Gordon’s last road course win was in Sonoma in 2006, and since then he’s recorded a top 10 in every trip to Napa Valley. He led 13 laps a year ago — his first laps led at Sonoma since the win — and finished sixth. Don’t be concerned if things aren’t looking great for the No. 24 at halfway, either. In the last eight Sonoma races, he’s averaged 17th at the cross flags only to wind up with a series-best average finish of 8.3.
Also consider: Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson
Juan Pablo Montoya: You won't find a better weekend to start him. (ASP, Inc.)
B-List (Pick four, start two) Juan Pablo Montoya
Don’t get caught trying to be too fancy this week. You’ll likely not come close to starting Montoya to his maximum come Homestead, so you should definitely use him at Sonoma. Montoya hasn’t won Sonoma since his first NASCAR win there in 2007, but he’s scored three top-10 finishes in his last five starts. Plus, that team seems to just be generally faster this season.
While there’s no word if Ambrose is lobbying NASCAR to oil down the track late in Sunday's event (like last August at Watkins Glen), he has reached one of the two weeks in the season where his team truly expects to win. He’s yet to pull it off at Sonoma — you’ll remember how he threw one away while conserving fuel under yellow in ’08 — but he does have two top-5 finishes in his last five starts.
It’s somewhat tough to believe, but Kurt Busch has the best average running position among all drivers in the last eight Sonoma races. Granted, just one of those was a win and his average finish (14th) is five spots lower, but his victory came just two visits back (2011) and last year he finished third despite a broken rear suspension in a Phoenix Racing machine.
Busch is the type of guy who races best when he has something to prove, and after crashing at Michigan you’d think Sonoma could be one of those events.
When Vickers was hired to drive the road courses in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 last season, I was a bit incredulous. In six Sonoma starts, Vickers hadn’t so much as cracked the top 10. Naturally, he responded by driving to a third-place finish and, perhaps more importantly, avoided retribution from Stewart. Start him this weekend if only because the rest of the B-List is a virtual Sonoma crapshoot and Vickers’ starts are expendable.
Also consider: Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Burton
C-List (Pick four, start two) David Gilliland
It’ll be slim pickings again this week from the C-List, but consider Gilliland to fill the role thanks to some semblance of success he’s shown on road course tracks. He was a lap down a year ago, finishing 26th, but in 2010 and ’11 he scored top-20 runs. In 2008, Gilliland was second at Sonoma and he did win last year’s K&N West Series support race at Sonoma, so … that’s something, right?
You’ll maybe use Danica only at the restrictor plate tracks from here on out, so why not Sonoma? The method to this madness goes like this: Patrick was as strong as ever last season in the Nationwide Series road course events at Road America and Montreal. Thanks to a mechanical failure (and a shoe — presumably Jeff Gluck’s — on the track) at latter and getting punted at former, the finishes didn’t show it. Should she continue her consistent style Sunday at Sonoma, I’d bet a top-15 finish isn’t out the question. Even a top 20 is great for a C-Lister.
David Smith crunches the numbers for the Toyota-Save Mart 350
Marcos Ambrose: A 5.5-place finish in the last four Sonoma races. (ASP, Inc.)
With the first half of this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winding down, one of two annual visits to a road course — right-hand turns, everybody! — presents itself this weekend as the tour heads to Sonoma Raceway, a track that has seen eight different winners in the last eight years.
Could the parity continue? Perhaps. There is one driver that you will read about below that, while being one of the strongest drivers at Sonoma over the last four years, has yet to visit victory lane. What might stand in that particular driver’s way is the fact that several past winners are consistently terrific at the 1.99-mile course.
5.5 Road course stalwart Marcos Ambrose has averaged a 5.5-place finish in the last four Sonoma races.
Unlike his utter dominance at Watkins Glen, he is less adept of a driver at Sonoma (but he is still really, really good). He hasn’t ever won — his best finish is third in 2009 — but he does rank second in track-specific PEER (5.100), which makes him one of two non-winners to rank inside the top 5 in driver production. Ambrose and his No. 9 team are in need of a strong finish; ranking 23rd in the point standings, they only have two top-10 finishes to show for their 2013 season.
Clint being Clint following his Sonoma race win last year. (ASP, Inc.)
5.500 Clint Bowyer, the 2012 race winner, tops the Cup Series in Sonoma PEER with a 5.500 rating.
Bowyer captured his first victory with Michael Waltrip Racing in this event last year, shocking many who didn’t associate him with road course racing. Those shocked clearly didn’t do their homework. Outside of the victory, Bowyer had three fourth-place finishes to his credit at Sonoma — all taking place in the CoT car — and an eighth-place run. The only thing new about his road course racing game displayed last year was the ability to dominate, which he did by leading 71 out of 112 total laps (63.4 percent).
4.667 Despite not winning there in the last six years, Jeff Gordon ranks third in PEER at Sonoma with a 4.667 rating.
Gordon’s 5.3-place average finish is the best in the Cup Series by about three whole positions. That level of consistency — a pinpoint 2.58 finish deviation, which is also the best in the series — is astonishing at a road course. Lest we forget, he is the same Gordon who won three consecutive Sonoma races and five overall in the Gen-4 era. Because he has been absent from the limelight, we tend to lose sight of the fact that he is one of the best road course racers in NASCAR history.
62.1% Tony Stewart amassed a 62.1 percent passing efficiency (a pass differential of plus-23) in last year’s race, leading to a second-place finish.
That’s good news for Stewart who, after struggling with passing at the beginning of the season, has passed more than he has been passed in the five most recent races this season, earning a 53.55 percent efficiency. Stewart never won at Sonoma in the CoT era, but he is one of three drivers — Gordon and Bowyer are the others — to have earned at least five top-10 finishes at Sonoma in the last six years.
37.34% After crashing out of the lead at Michigan, Kasey Kahne and his No. 5 team have a 37.34 percent Chase probability, which is the 13th-best mark in the Cup Series.
Don’t panic Kahne fans; all isn’t lost. Outside of that nice wild card cushion he created for himself with a win at Bristol, he can capitalize on several upcoming racetracks, which includes Sonoma, a track on which he won in 2009. He ranks seventh in Sonoma-specific PEER (2.833). While another win might be a long shot — his average finish at Sonoma is actually 22.0 — a quality outing could certainly be had.
139 Dating back to 2002 (a span of 11 races), Kurt Busch has led 139 laps at Sonoma.
That total is comprised mostly of three races — (he led 30 laps in 2002, 29 in 2006 and 76 in 2011) — which made up three of his top-5 finishes at the facility. He sealed the deal in 2011, winning behind the wheel of a Penske Racing car, but his most memorable performance came last season when he finished third in a Phoenix Racing entry that had a visibly broken rear end. Having finished in the top 15 four times in the last five races this season, he is within sniffing distance of becoming a regular frontrunner in Furniture Row Racing equipment. Might such a thing manifest itself on Sunday?
120 Canadian Sports Car racer Ron Fellows scored 120 points last year in three NASCAR Nationwide Series starts on road courses, which ranked as the second most in the series.
Fellows, 53, is no slouch on the road courses — he has six victories to his name in the Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series — but all three of those top-5 finishes last year came behind the wheel of a JR Motorsports entry. Piloting a car out of the independent Circle Sport stable, he might have his work cut out for him against a Cup Series field at Sonoma. Still, when it comes to making right-hand turns, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with the experience and expertise of Fellows. Is that enough to carry the rocky No. 33 team to a stout finish?
Kenseth's departure, Roush's title chances and the next driver to score a win
Matt Kenseth in Victory Lane at Daytona. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The announcement that Matt Kenseth will leave Roush Fenway Racing after this season has been the talk of NASCAR. Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council didn’t hold back on what they thought about the move on if it was good or bad for Roush and how this might impact Kenseth’s title hopes.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council also weighed in on Sunday’s race at Sonoma, who between 11th and 20th in the points will make the Chase and more. Here’s what they had to say.
KENSETH LEAVING A GOOD OR BAD MOVE FOR ROUSH?
68.3 percent called it a bad move for Roush trading a former champ for a Cup rookie 31.7 percent called it a good move, trading a 40-year-old for a 24-year-old in a nod to future
What Fan Council members said:
• Although I hate to see Matt Kenseth go, there are only so many cars that Jack Roush can put out there and if Ricky did not end up in a Cup car, then he may end up there with another team and that would be a bigger loss.
• Stenhouse will be a star. Cheaper for Roush as well. Kenseth can get on with Gibbs (if the rumors are true). WIN WIN for everyone.
• Ricky will never be as good as Matt. Matt is a great driver, has a wonderful sense of humor and he's humble. Put up against Matt, Ricky will never measure up.
• Bad move for no other reason than a continuation of the Roush mentality of abandoning career drivers for others. Nothing but money. Re: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch. Jack Roush is a businessman that is dedicated to money, not his employees. His counter ego would appear to be Coach Gibbs.
• For the short run, I'd rather have Kenseth, but in the long run, Stenhouse will be an elite Cup driver.
• JACK HAS LOST HIS MIND. WOW what a mistake — just like some of the others Jack has made.
• As a die-hard Matt fan, I think it's a bad move and I blame it on the RFR sales department. Even in a down economy, it shouldn't be this hard to find sponsors for a championship-caliber driver on the track and a class individual off the track. Considering the same RFR sales department couldn't even sign any sponsors for Trevor Bayne after he won the 500 last year, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at their inability to do so (now).
• I can't believe the coldness with which a champion who is leading the points is dumped for a cheap, child driver. This is the same attitude toward employees that is killing this country. I'm sure Fenway had a big say in this.
• The financial environment is unwittingly making NASCAR more and more like major league sports with free agency. There is no loyalty any more, not that the teams wouldn't like to stay together, but because the finances don't work out. For whatever reason, Roush Fenway doesn't seem to be able to sell sponsorships well or at least at a level that permits them to field teams for their talent. Matt's ride this year was barely filled, and undoubtedly they all knew that sponsor commitments (or lack of) would make it impossible for RFR to pay him what his asking price was for next year.
• Kenseth is in position to win the championship and you're going to do that to him? That is beyond ridiculous. Stenhouse is a good driver with a bright future and there is no reason why they don't just bring back the fourth car since he apparently can get sponsorship and Trevor Bayne can't, which I don't understand, either.
• Stupid, stupid move on Roush's part! Wish Kenserh the best though ... as long as he doesn't go to Toyota!
• Nothing against Ricky, but if they cannot get Matt sponsorship for a full season who do they think will come aboard for a rookie with less talent?
• It's the only move Roush could make. Kenseth is going to command a very large new contract and Roush hasn't had a full slate of sponsors for him for a couple of years now. Kenseth can go to Gibbs and Home Depot and cash in and Roush can start his rebuild with a great young driver. I think Stenhouse is going to be a little like Tony Stewart: better in a more powerful Cup car than the Nationwide car. Those dirt guys love all that extra power. I think Kenseth will be a great asset at Gibbs as a calming influence, plus I think he might just have a title or two left in him. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
HOW WILL THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT KENSETH IS LEAVING AFTER THIS SEASON IMPACT HIS TITLE HOPES? Matt Kenseth noted on Twitter that he doesn't believe that announcing he'll leave the team after this season will hurt his title chances, noting crew chief Darian Gurbb knew he would not return with Tony Stewart last year and they won a title together. Fan Council members were asked what they thought.
51.6 percent said Kenseth’s titles chances will be unaffected 39.1 percent said Kenseth hurt his title chances 9.3 percent said Kenseth helped his title hopes since there will be a greater drive to win the title in the final year with the team
What Fan Council members said:
• I believe as long as his team believes in him and themselves he has just as much chance as anyone else to win the title.
• I think he could still go on to win it. But, just like contract talks, etc., at mid-season even though they "say” it doesn't affect them they always admit when it is over that it did. It has to. A NASCAR driver ain't no fry cook at McDonalds. This is big money and big impact at a high level.
• 1. A crew chief is not as public of a position as a driver. 2. Grubb's move wasn’t made public until AFTER the championship. 3. Grubb and Stewart didn't decide he was leaving until Charlotte IN THE CHASE. You can't tell me Biffle won't get better equipment knowing he'll be there next year. This may help Carl make the Chase now.
• Matt has always said over the years that he doesn't let front office issues (contracts, sponsorships, etc.) affect his racing, so I would like to think that would continue. Being the top-tier driver he is, it's not like he needs to worry about not being able to find a ride next year (even if a JGR agreement isn't already in place).
• Matt has gained the points lead during the most difficult point in his negotiations with Roush and his future team. The announcement has been made and Matt is liberated, free from care and any consternation, free to focus on his goal of winning the Sprint Cup.
• Grubb wasn't announced. It was all internal and there were no "extra" spotlights on Grubb/Stewart. ALL eyes will focus on ANY shift in performance with Kenseth the rest of the year. Stick a fork in his title hopes.
• Can anyone say “Quack, Quack!” This might not affect Matt right now, but once he announces where he is headed and then Roush starts uninviting him to team meetings, that is when you will see the effect.
• Solidarity amongst the entire team is necessary to win a title. What Tony Stewart did last year was super-human. I do not feel Matt Kenseth is of the same caliber of driver as Tony. I feel the driver leaving a team is more troubling than a crew chief.
• I still think the championship is going to come down to Johnson, Stewart and Kenseth this year. It might be tempting for Roush to play favorites and give Biffle some extra attention, but I don't think he will — Matt has been too important to Jack's company for him to do that. I think they will end this relationship in a classy way.
• I think what Matt said is totally right. Grubb knew he was out five races early and still ended up with the title, so it doesn't really matter. It may be a slight issue, especially since Matt's directly involved with where he goes, but not enough to distract him that bad. He is a championship driver still, even as a lame duck.
GRADE SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT SONOMA
47.3 percent called it Good 32.4 percent called it Fair 10.8 percent called it Great 9.5 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• My husband and I went to the race. I felt there was a lot of single-file racing, not a lot of action and got kind of bored during the race. Still liked being there, though.
• Typical road racing, very little passing or real racing. The only saving grace was Kurt Busch's valiant challenge near the end. Otherwise, completely sans drama or excitement.
• I had no problem with the race. Some will say it’s boring, but at least there was driving ability and strategy involved in this win.
• The race itself was good — if you don't count my driver's "genius crew chief" finding another way to lose a race. The TNT coverage, however, was an unmitigated disaster, capped by showing the GWC restart through the BACK of the grandstand. Seriously. They did that. I don't know how ANYONE would have found Sunday's telecast compelling.
• I thought the duel at the end between Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer was awesome. The rest of the race was so-so.
• I graded this race as fair just because for some reason there was no excitement. I'm not one that needs cautions or wrecks to have excitement but this race was just plain boring. But then again they all can’t be awesome all the time.
• I was there, and it was AWESOME!!
• Not crazy about road courses, but TNT's coverage just about ruined it all for me. Not quite sure about all that went on as they really showed none of what was happening. The lack of cautions and the bad luck my driver faced is making me rate this race as only “fair.”
• Had really high hopes for this race, but it turned out to be a real snoozer
• This was by far the WORST telecast of the season. Stuff was happening left and right and TNT completely ignored it or did a poor job presenting it. Even later on they would not go back to (or mention) important race happenings. Shame on you TNT. Thank goodness for Twitter so I actually knew what was going on with my driver and with the race.
Will Jeff Gordon be next? (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
WHO’S NEXT TO WIN? Nine drivers who won a race in 2011 have yet to win this year. Fan Council members were asked who among this group will win a race next?
48.2 percent said Jeff Gordon 29.9 percent said Kevin Harvick 14.0 percent said Carl Edwards 5.6 percent said Kurt Busch 1.7 percent said Marcos Ambrose 0.3 percent said Trevor Bayne 0.3 percent said Paul Menard
What Fan Council members said:
• Wow, I found this question to be very hard. I realize nothing hinges on my answer, but it really made me think about the list of drivers who did win last year and are having problems this year. And wow — what an impressive list. I picked Ku Busch but could have gone with Kevin Harvick. Just feel the luck factor for most of the others is all bad.
• I have to believe that the worst luck he has ever had has to come to an end and I say NOW would be the time. I believe Jeff Gordon — my sentimental favorite — wins next. He truly has had great cars and could have won races already.
• Wow, that's an interesting list. With the way most of these peoples’ seasons are going it's not looking too good. I would have to say Cousin Carl would be next on that list just because the way his teammates are running.
• I believe that Kevin Harvick will probably break into the winners circle next. I think he is going to start being more aggressive to get himself a win or two before the Chase starts.
• This is a tossup between Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Both are running decent but bad luck seems to strike at the wrong moment. The first one to run a full race without any bad luck will win. Of course, what was Tony Stewart doing at this time last year?
• Jeff Gordon is due and has been running the best of these drivers, just has not had the finishes to show. He is a champ and will find victory lane. Next in line is Kevin Harvick, though that team still has some problems to iron out.
• I'm going with Kurt Busch for whatever tantrums he throws, he has proven he's a great driver and (Sunday) he was so close. Fingers crossed for him.
WHO WILL MAKE THE CHASE? Fan Council members were given a list of the drivers between 11th and 20th in the points and asked which ones would make the Chase.
60.9 percent said Kyle Busch 39.1 percent said Kasey Kahne 38.0 percent said Carl Edwards 29.0 percent said Jeff Gordon 22.2 percent said Ryan Newman 14.8 percent said Joey Logano 3.0 percent said Marcos Ambrose 2.0 percent said Paul Menard 1.7 percent said Jeff Burton 1.0 percent said Jamie McMurray
What Fan Council members said:
• Kyle and Carl are drivers who have been able to step it up in the past, and they don't have as far to go as the others.
• It might be wishful thinking, but I believe Joey Logano will continue to put up top-5 results and inch his way into the Chase. I believe Kasey Kahne will win another race or two and get the wild card spot. Kyle Busch may also make the Chase if JGR can calm the engine issues and allow him to put in some quality performances.
• Carl and Kyle are givens, and Joey will be fighting for his job and will slip right in on wins.
• I see Ryan Newman getting in. I hope Jeff Burton can get in the top 10 as well.
• I'm not sure ANY of them will make it into the top 10; it is going to come down to those wild card wins.
• Truex will fall out and Edwards will get in. Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon get in via the wild card.
• I'll go with Kahne and Newman because they each have a win and one more would essentially lock them in. Edwards is hungover from last year, in my opinion.
• I like Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch to make it. I know Kahne has fallen off a bit since his win in the Coke 600, but he has a lot of good tracks coming up and I see him getting at least one more win before the Chase. As for Kyle Busch, he is the kind of guy who can get it done anywhere. Once they figure out there engine woes, I see Kyle getting to victory lane and possible in the top 10.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Bowyer, MWR team, have found chemistry early in 2012
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Perhaps Clint Bowyer’s win on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., should not have come as a surprise. After all, the seven-year NASCAR Sprint Cup veteran had recorded four top 10s in six starts at the 1.99-mile course prior to Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Still, Bowyer, a Kansas native with Midwest dirt-tracking roots, has never been considered anywhere near a “road course ringer,” as the NASCAR types like to label those who excel when turning left and right.
But Bowyer, crew chief Brian Pattie and their Michael Waltrip Racing crew became the eighth different team to go to Victory Lane at Sonoma in as many visits, fending off a feisty challenge from Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart in the final laps on the 12-turn road course.
“Quietly, we’ve had good runs here,” a beaming Bowyer said following the win. “This is probably, quietly, been one of my favorite racetracks.”
The victory was Bowyer’s first of the season and the first for MWR’s No. 15 team — a group pieced together late last season — and one Bowyer referred to as a bunch of “refugees.”
“Basically, (I) kind of lost my ride at RCR (in 2011), walked into a new program with a lot of unknowns, and I had a lot of confidence in what was going on,” Bowyer said of what brought him to MWR. “I still had confidence in myself. Michael, Rob Kaufmann (co-owner), everybody involved with MWR, paired me with Brian Pattie and paired me with a lot of good people and that’s what it takes to be successful in any good business and NASCAR racing is no exception.”
Pattie’s “refugee” status was not much different than Bowyer’s. A crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Pattie was given his walking papers in mid-July with the team floundering at 17th place in the point standings (it was 21st by season’s end. Waltrip came calling in the fall).
“I was in the same boat (Bowyer) was — he lost his ride and I lost my job,” Pattie said. “Last summer was eye-opening for me personally and career-wise. (I) had a lot of supporters call whenever times changed at my previous employer, and I’m just blessed to be here.”
That Bowyer, Pattie and crew have pieced together nine top 10s in less than a half season together, are solidly in the top 10 in points and now have a win in their pocket to fall back on speaks to the immediate chemistry alive and well within the team. And the progress made by the organization as a whole is evident in the other cars in the stable. Martin Truex Jr., in the No. 56 car, sits ninth in points (Bowyer is seventh), while Mark Martin and Brian Vickers have split duties in the No. 55 to the tune of four top 5s.
Bowyer’s move from Richard Childress Racing to MWR was seen by some as a lateral one, at best. But the Toyota-backed company that first took to the Cup Series in 2007 has grown exponentially. Waltrip credits a better working relationship with fellow Toyota team Joe Gibbs Racing as a major reason.
“I give Andy Graves a lot of credit any time I’m asked about where we are today,” Waltrip said. “The reason for that is simple: I went to him in January of 2011 and I said, ‘Are our cars as good as Job Gibbs’ cars?’ And he said, ‘No, they are not, because you don’t trust our process.’
“I said, ‘Well, we are changing directions, and we are going to start following you.’”
While JGR has outclassed MWR in the win column this season, the latter’s consistency and reliability win the day. And Bowyer’s No. 15 team is leading the charge, riding a streak of four consecutive runs of seventh or better. For a first-year group competing against established teams with years of experience together, it makes the bunch a dangerous — albeit unproven — one as the circuit hits the homestretch to NASCAR’s playoffs.
“It’s a long row to hoe before the Chase,” Bowyer said. “Everybody is in this sport because of the Chase and you can’t win a championship without being a part of that elite group.
“I missed it (the Chase banquet in Las Vegas) last year and it sucked to sit at home and watch. I did get to deer hunt a little bit but I would much rather be partying.”
If the post-race scene in Sonoma is any indication, Bowyer and crew have the chemistry to throw the most epic party Vegas has seen in some time.
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.