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.
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?
David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA .