This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
Other than that carousel turn, the drivers have to be on their toes for any opportunity to make a pass. These characteristics make it a tough course for the oval track drivers, because they will struggle to find passing opportunities. The action on the road circuits the last few seasons has been pretty rough and tumble, in fact, it resembles more of what we expect to see on a short track oval due to all the contact. Sonoma has been no exception, so we expect to see that same fender-beating action in this installment of the
Other than that carousel turn, the drivers have to be on their toes for any opportunity to make a pass. These characteristics make it a tough course for the oval track drivers, because they will struggle to find passing opportunities. The action on the road circuits the last few seasons has been pretty rough and tumble, in fact, it resembles more of what we expect to see on a short track oval due to all the contact. Sonoma has been no exception, so we expect to see that same fender-beating action in this installment of the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Along with the handful of road course specialists who show up every year for this event, we have a handful of Sprint Cup Series regulars that really shine when we visit Sonoma Raceway. Drivers like Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch don't miss a beat when we come to the California road course. These drivers have great fantasy racing value on the circuit's many ovals, and they also make great selections on the road circuits like Sonoma Raceway. Their experience with shifting and making right turns will make them better than most the Sprint Cup regulars in the field.
Since this is the first of two road course events in the Sprint Cup Series schedule, we'll have to almost solely rely on recent historical data this weekend. The current hot streaks entering this race will play a very small part, but really this style of track requires a lot of historical data review for making our driver lists. There are certain drivers, really good ones, who hate road course racing and it will show up on the track this Sunday. The drivers who have performed well at Sonoma in recent years have a definite advantage in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The loop stats shown below cover the last 10 years or 10 races at Sonoma Raceway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Martin Truex Jr.||18.7||183||52||67||495||86.1|
For a number of years Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart dominated the 10-turn road course with seven wins in a nine year stretch. However, younger drivers have stepped in and taken over the reins at the California road course the few years. Young stars like Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. have dethroned the old NASCAR guard at Sonoma, so this race is more unpredictable than ever. Last season saw Carl Edwards turn in a strong road course performance and capture his first career victory at Sonoma Raceway. In 2013, it was current sensation, Truex Jr., pulling an equally impressive performance and taking his first career win at Sonoma. The one name that remains winless at this facility, but would be in line to keep this theme of first-time winners going, would be Kevin Harvick. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has been painfully close to winning the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in the past, but circumstances have not played out in his favor. With over 23 laps led in last year's Sonoma race and three Top-10 finishes in the last five races at this track, the Harvick-watch must be in full swing this weekend. Even though the current theme at Sonoma Raceway points to first-time winners, we feel like there's a very good chance for a repeat winner this weekend. Veterans like Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are racing very well coming into this weekend, and all are past Sonoma winners. So the chances for a repeat victor this Sunday afternoon are at least somewhat probable. We'll take a look at the stats, Sonoma's history and the road course experts in order to give you the drivers you need to dominate your league this weekend.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Kurt Busch - Busch has been on an absolute tear since returning from an early-season suspension. He's climbed from 33rd to 11th in the driver point standings in his 12 starts since returning to action and claimed two victories. The veteran driver is an excellent road course racer and his Sonoma stats back that up. Busch won this event in 2011 and he's led 154 career circuits at the 10-turn California race track. His six career Top-5 finishes work out to an impressive 43-percent Top-5 rate at Sonoma Raceway. Busch is fresh off the Michigan win before the off-week and riding a ton of momentum to wine and cheese country this week.
Martin Truex Jr. - The one-time Sonoma winner comes back to the scene of his surprising victory in the 2013 Toyota/Save Mart 350, but with a new attitude of success. Truex will pilot the No. 78 Chevrolet of Furniture Row Racing in this Sunday's 350k event, and he rides into California second in the championship standings after his sensational start to the season. The veteran driver has a pretty good Sonoma resume to boot. Truex has 66 laps led and two Top-10 finishes in his last four starts at the 10-turn road course. The team can seem to do no wrong right now on the series' ovals, and we're willing to bet that exceptionalism translates to the road course circuit as well.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick doesn't have the career statistics at Sonoma to inspire major confidence this weekend, but he does have two things going for him. One, his recent record on road courses and two, he has a lot of momentum coming to California this week. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet has three Top 10s in his last five Sonoma races coming into this Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. He led a career-best 23 laps in this event one year ago. Additionally, Harvick is a career 50-percent Top-10 finisher at the winding circuit in Watkins Glen. It's clear that the SHR star has the tools to succeed on these unique circuits. There may be no better "outside" contender play this week than the Stewart Haas Racing veteran.
Clint Bowyer - The No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team is rolling along well coming to Sonoma Raceway this weekend. Bowyer is fresh off a 10th-place performance at Michigan and his team is getting better each week. The Sonoma resume is short but impressive for Bowyer at this road circuit. He won this event three years ago and owns five Top 5s and seven Top 10s in just nine career starts at this facility. The veteran driver qualified 25th and finished 10th in this event one year ago, so his skills to pass on these winding circuits is clear. Considering the experience and momentum, things look very good for the No. 15 Toyota team this weekend at the Sonoma Raceway.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Jimmie Johnson - Johnson joined the winner's list at Sonoma with his brilliant performance in this event in 2010. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet qualified on the outside pole for that race and led 55 laps en route to Johnson's first career Sonoma win. The six-time Sprint Cup Series champion currently has a six-race Top-10 streak in tow at Sonoma, including a seventh-place finish in this race one year ago. Johnson's 62-percent Top-10 rate at this winding course ranks among the very best in the Sprint Cup Series. Considering that he's won two of the last five races entering this weekend, we expect Johnson to be good, and possibly great in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Carl Edwards - The Joe Gibbs Racing star joined the winner's fraternity at Sonoma last season in his final year at Roush. We've seen Edwards' skills gradually improve at this track for many seasons and it finally culminated in a big win. While much hasn't gone right in his transition to Gibbs and Toyota, this is a weekend to be optimistic for a good performance. In addition to Edwards' 2014 Sonoma victory, he has three Top-3 finishes in the last four races at this facility. That brings his Top-10 rate at this road course to a very respectable 50-percent over 10-career starts. There is nothing at all accidental about these stats, and Edwards should back them up this weekend.
Joey Logano - Logano is one of the more consistent drivers in the Sprint Cup Series entering this weekend's race in wine country. Over the last five races he's managed 53 laps led, one pole and three Top-5 finishes. That makes him one of the top point-getters during this span. Logano has a short but successful resume at the California road course. The Penske Racing driver has one pole position and two Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to Sonoma Raceway. He has finished on the lead lap in all but one of his six-career starts at this tricky facility. All things being equal we expect the young driver to stay on a roll this Sunday afternoon at the 10-turn road course.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon was once an unstoppable force at Sonoma Raceway, but he has slipped from that pedestal over the last few seasons. His five career victories lead all drivers at the California road course. Gordon's last visit to victory lane at Sonoma came in 2006, but he's reeled off nine consecutive Top-10 finishes here since that last win. That streak includes runner-up finishes in three of the last four Sonoma races, so he is just one piece of the puzzle away from winning here again. Gordon has led 457 career laps at the Sonoma Raceway, so no driver on the track this Sunday knows this place better than him.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Sonoma who can provide a solid finish
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - The most popular driver in NASCAR lifted his spirits at Michigan before the off-weekend with an excellent runner-up finish in the rain-shortened Quicken Loans 400. He comes to Sonoma Raceway this week in a very optimistic mode and looking to build on his first-career Top-10 at this facility in last season's Toyota/Save Mart 350. Up until 2014, this 10-turn road course had been a place of near-misses and heartbreak for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. However, his brilliant third-place effort helped to erase those woes. Now he and crew chief Greg Ives come to Sonoma to build on that effort. A Top-10 finish is more than anticipated, it's expected inside this race team.
Greg Biffle - The Roush Fenway Racing veteran makes a surprisingly good fantasy racing start at Sonoma Raceway. We don't typically think of Biffle when it comes to road course racing, but he's really honed his skills at this particular track in recent seasons. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has collected four Top 10s in his last five trips to the California road course. Biffle is slumping a bit as the series heads west to Sonoma this weekend, but this track has been a very dependable facility for the veteran driver in recent seasons. Nothing like a good bit of road course racing to help Biffle shake off his current slump on the ovals.
Jamie McMurray - While not likely to grab a Top-10 finish, the veteran EGR driver McMurray will stay out of trouble on what has become a very rough race in recent seasons. The action at Sonoma can often look like short track racing with all the fender-beating and jockeying for position. McMurray seems immune to these hazards as shown by his steady 16.7 average finish at the track. He has three-career pole positions (including the last two in a row) and five front row starting efforts in his Sonoma resume, so the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet puts the car up front to stay out of trouble. 10 of his 12 career starts at Sonoma Raceway have netted Top-20 finishes, including a brilliant fourth-place finish in this race one year ago.
A.J. Allmendinger - The California native will gladly have a homecoming this weekend at Sonoma Raceway. Allmendinger has been battling some performance issues of late. He's a veteran of many road course races and has competed at Sonoma in more than one racing series. As his two Xfinity Series wins in 2013 on the road course circuit showed, Allmendinger possesses incredible road racing skills. The JTG/Daugherty Racing driver has two Top 10 and four Top 15s in his six career starts at this facility. He led a career-best 35 laps and looked poised to win last season's Toyota/Save Mart 350 before bad luck derailed his efforts. A shot at redemption awaits this weekend.
Danica Patrick - The Stewart Haas Racing driver will be making just her third-career start at Sonoma Raceway this Sunday. However, the road racing resume for Patrick is pretty long and noteworthy. She carved out 25 starts in her seven-season IndyCar career and that experience has now paid dividends in stock car racing. Patrick claimed a respectable 18th-place finish in this event one year ago at Sonoma and she also has claimed 20th- and 21st-place finishes in her two-career starts at the Watkins Glen road circuit. You won't see a lot of flash from the No. 10 Chevrolet this weekend, but we should see some consistent driving and Patrick hitting her marks in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
David Gilliland - Gilliland seems to respond like a lot of other drivers that are familiar with Sonoma Raceway. He forged a career-best runner-up finish at this track in 2008, and Gilliland piloted the Front Row Motorsports No. 38 Ford to respectable Top-25 finishes in four of the last five seasons at the 10-turn road course. The journeyman driver won a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at this track in 2007 and hammered out a brilliant runner-up finish in 2010 in this lower division of NASCAR. To say that Gilliland knows Sonoma Raceway like the back of his hand is no exaggeration.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Tony Stewart - Stewart is a two-time winner at Sonoma Raceway and has a stellar average finish position of 12.4 in 16 career races at the facility. He comes to the road course this weekend in the middle of the biggest slump of his NASCAR career. The malaise has really been on the No. 14 team for some time, as Smoke's Sonoma stats will show. His last four efforts at the 10-turn track netted finishes of 39th-, second-, 28th- and 19th-place. The lone runner-up finish is dampened by wild inconsistency and one DNF. This has been the story for much of the last two seasons for Stewart. Even on a course as historically strong as this one, we have to recommend passing on the owner/driver for this one.
Matt Kenseth - The Joe Gibbs Racing star comes to Sonoma Raceway as a prime championship contender. So it probably comes as a surprise to see the downgrade to the avoid list this week for the No. 20 Toyota team. Kenseth is a wonderfully consistent driver most any weekend of the NASCAR season, but like anyone he has an Achilles heel. The 10-turn road course is that weakness for Kenseth. In 15 career starts he's managed one Top-10 finish and a lowly average finish of 22.1. A middle teen's finish appears to be the ceiling for Kenseth this weekend, so it's a good idea to save his best for some other weekend in the schedule.
Kyle Busch - Despite being a one-time winner at Sonoma Raceway we have to give the downgrade to Busch this week. Coming off a poor 43rd-place finish at Michigan this past week, the JGR star is a shaky play on the Sonoma road course. He's collected a victory and two Top-10 finishes at the Sonoma circuit, but his other eight starts at the facility have been completely forgettable. Busch's last six trips to the 10-turn track have netted only one Top-15 finish, and all this despite some good qualifying efforts. This track for whatever reason just doesn't click with the driver of the No. 18 Toyota. It's peculiar because Busch is an incredibly good fantasy racing play at the Watkins Glen road course in New York.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin pulled a bit of a fading act at Michigan International Speedway this past weekend. That concerns us greatly as we head to the climbing and twisting turns of Sonoma this week. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a questionable fantasy racing play at best in the Toyota / Save Mart 350. With nine career starts at the track he's only managed two Top-10 finishes despite having led 48 laps at the facility. Hamlin's last five Sonoma outings have netted 34th-, 37th-, 35th-, 23rd- and 26th-place finishes. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement heading into this 350k road racing event.