Toyota/Save Mart 350 Preview: Road Course Wild Card

Toyota/Save Mart 350 Preview: Road Course Wild Card

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We leave the ovals behind this week and head to the twisting turns as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will make its first stop on the road course circuit. Sonoma Raceway in California plays host to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday. As we leave the oval tracks in the rear view mirror, the crew chiefs will be left scrambling to dust off the road course playbooks for this event. Sonoma Raceway is a two-mile, 12-turn road course with many elevation changes and several different types of corners. The long, relatively straight runs are abruptly ended by many sharp corners, so horsepower and brakes are very important. One lap around Sonoma incurs a total 160 feet of elevation change, so this course is very hard on the driver and equipment. The 180-degree carrousel turn before the start/finish line provides many passing opportunities to those drivers who can drive in deep and out-brake their opponents. Other than that carrousel 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

We leave the ovals behind this week and head to the twisting turns as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will make its first stop on the road course circuit. Sonoma Raceway in California plays host to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday. As we leave the oval tracks in the rear view mirror, the crew chiefs will be left scrambling to dust off the road course playbooks for this event. Sonoma Raceway is a two-mile, 12-turn road course with many elevation changes and several different types of corners. The long, relatively straight runs are abruptly ended by many sharp corners, so horsepower and brakes are very important. One lap around Sonoma incurs a total 160 feet of elevation change, so this course is very hard on the driver and equipment. The 180-degree carrousel turn before the start/finish line provides many passing opportunities to those drivers who can drive in deep and out-brake their opponents. Other than that carrousel 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 Carl Edwards, 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 11 years or 11 races at Sonoma Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kurt Busch11.926178166955109.3
Jimmie Johnson10.630463131928101.0
Tony Stewart14.2295796285298.1
Clint Bowyer8.6264408267196.7
Ryan Newman13.5230181173788.5
Kyle Busch19.11865410563588.3
Carl Edwards15.2225334068288.3
Jamie McMurray17.2153274159687.1
Kevin Harvick16.7237413373286.9
Kasey Kahne17.0279414169586.7
Kyle Larson21.5425015986.3
A.J. Allmendinger21.9167243635984.5
Martin Truex Jr.21.0187526751783.3
Greg Biffle13.02128961281.4
Joey Logano14.313371840781.1
Denny Hamlin22.7173334835576.0
Brian Vickers18.113591930375.9
Matt Kenseth20.61381054275.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 19.618822045275.2
Brad Keselowski19.810614728173.3

For a number of years Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart dominated the 12-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 last few years. Young stars like Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards have dethroned the old NASCAR guard at Sonoma, so this race is more unpredictable than ever. Last season saw Joe Gibbs Racing star Busch turn in a strong road course performance to outduel his older brother and capture his second-career victory at Sonoma Raceway. In 2014, it was Edwards who took over late in the event and raced his way to his first-career victory at the California road course. 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 a fourth-place finish in last season's Sonoma race and a steady 40-percent Top-10 rate at the winding circuit, 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 Martin Truex Jr. 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 the last two-plus months. He's climbed from 7th- to second-place in the driver point standings in his last 9 starts, has claimed one victory (Pocono), and is riding a 10-race Top-10 streak into Sonoma. 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 197-career circuits at the 12-turn California race track. His seven-career Top-5 finishes work out to an impressive 47-percent Top-5 rate at Sonoma Raceway. Busch led 43 laps and finished runner-up in this event one year ago, so the No. 41 SHR team has some unfinished business at this track Sunday afternoon.

Carl Edwards -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star joined the winner's fraternity at Sonoma Raceway two seasons ago with his 2014 victory at the track. We've seen Edwards' skills gradually improve at this road course for many seasons and it finally culminated in that big win. In addition to Edwards' 2014 Sonoma victory, he has three Top-3 finishes in the last five races at this facility. That brings his Top-10 rate at this road course to a very respectable 46-percent over 11-career starts. There is nothing at all accidental about these stats, and Edwards should challenge for the win once again this weekend.

Joey Logano -
Logano is riding the momentum of his first victory of the season (Michigan) entering this weekend's race in wine country. Over the last three races he's managed 156 laps led, one pole, one win and three Top-10 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 three Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to Sonoma Raceway. He has finished on the lead lap in all but one of his seven-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 12-turn road course.

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 four Top 10's in his last six Sonoma races coming into this Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. He led a career-best 23 laps in this event two year ago. Additionally, Harvick is a career 53-percent Top-10 finisher at the winding circuit in Watkins Glen. He finished fourth in last year's battle at Sonoma Raceway. 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.

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 seven-race Top-10 streak in tow at Sonoma, including a sixth-place finish in this race one year ago. Johnson's 64-percent Top-10 rate at this winding course ranks among the very best in the Sprint Cup Series. He led 45 laps and battled for the win in last season's Sonoma race before settling for sixth, so we expect Johnson to be good, and possibly great in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The one-time Sonoma winner comes back to the scene of his surprising victory in the 2013 Toyota/Save Mart 350. Truex will pilot the No. 78 Toyota of Furniture Row Racing in this Sunday's 350k event, and he rides into California eighth 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 five starts at the 12-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.

Clint Bowyer -
The No. 15 HScott Motorsports team has struggled most of the season, but Bowyer has mixed in some good performances at his best tracks. He had Top-10 finishes at Bristol and Talladega earlier this season, so that is evidence of this fact. The Sonoma resume is short but impressive for Bowyer at this road circuit. He won this event four years ago and he owns six Top 5's and eight Top 10's in just 10-career starts at this facility. The veteran driver qualified sixth and finished third in this event one year ago, so his skills to pass on these winding circuits is clear. Considering the experience Bowyer boasts, things look very good for the No. 15 Chevrolet team this weekend at the Sonoma Raceway.

Chase Elliott -
The surging rookie driver will make his first-career Sprint Cup start on a road course this weekend. Elliott rides a hot hand into wine country sitting sixth overall in the driver standings and currently carrying a six-race Top-10 streak. The fact that's he's racing at Sonoma for the first time is only slightly concerning. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet is not untested on these winding circuits. He made six starts during his two-season Xfinity Series career on road courses and came away with five Top-5 finishes in those efforts, competing against some of the best in the business at road circuit racing. That experience should serve Elliott well in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Sonoma who can provide a solid finish

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The most popular driver in NASCAR will look to rebound from his crash and DNF at Michigan before the off-weekend. He comes to Sonoma Raceway this week in a very optimistic mode and looking to build on his two-race Top-10 streak at this facility. Up until 2014, this 12-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 in this event two years ago was followed by another good performance (seventh-place) in last season's Toyota/Save Mart 350. Now Earnhardt and crew chief Greg Ives come to Sonoma to build on those efforts. 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 10's in his last six 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 mediocrity on the ovals.

Kasey Kahne -
While the past couple seasons have been trying for Kahne and the No. 5 team, one thing has remained pretty consistent and that's his performance on the road courses. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has been trending north in the past month. He has a pair of Top-10 finishes in the last four races leading up to Sonoma, so there has been some improvement in performance. Kahne rides a three-race Sonoma Top-10 streak into Sunday's winding battle in wine country, and that streak carries through what has been a couple of his most difficult seasons racing at NASCAR's top level. Many fantasy racing players will overlook Kahne this weekend, but deploy him with confidence and use that to your advantage in weekly lineup leagues.

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 15's in his seven-career starts at this facility. He led a career-best 35 laps in the 2014 installment of this event, and he won the pole position in this event one year ago. Allmendinger is a fantasy racing sleeper with homerun potential at Sonoma Raceway.

Patrick Carpentier -
The 44-year-old Quebec native will make his NASCAR return this weekend at Sonoma. Carpentier will pilot the No. 32 Ford of Go FAS Racing in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. The veteran driver is known for his exploits on the road courses over the years. Carpentier has two-career Cup starts at Sonoma with his best finish of 11th coming in his last start. He's also a veteran of nine-career road course starts in the Xfinity Series, where he racked up three Top-5 finishes and one pole position. The plain and simple truth is that Carpentier gives this small race team a slugger's chance this week for a great finish. He will be very useful in deep weekly lineup leagues for a spot start.

Ryan Blaney -
Chase Elliott won't be the only driver making a Sonoma debut this weekend. He'll be joined by fellow rookie Wood Brothers Racing driver Blaney. While Blaney doesn't have the Xfinity Series experience that Elliott has, he still possesses the skills to succeed this weekend. The driver of the No. 21 Ford has only one road circuit start to his credit in that racing series, but it was impressive. Blaney started third and finished runner-up in last season's Xfinity Series event at Road America. That effort and knowledge will come in handy at the Sonoma road circuit. Blaney hasn't finished outside the Top 20 since April, so he rides a pretty good hot streak into central California this week.

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 17-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 five efforts at the 12-turn track netted finishes of 39th-, second-, 28th- , 19th- and 12th-place. The lone runner-up finish is dampened by wild inconsistency and one DNF. This has been the story for much of the last three 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 12-turn road course is that weakness for Kenseth. In 16-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 two-time winner at Sonoma Raceway we have to give the downgrade to Busch this week. Coming off an engine failure and poor 40th-place finish at Michigan in the last race, the JGR star is a shaky play on the Sonoma road course. His current Top-10 drought has grown to four races and all those finishes have been outside the Top 30. Busch has collected two victories and three Top-10 finishes at the Sonoma circuit, but his other eight starts at the facility have been completely forgettable. Busch's last four trips to the 12-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 with his crash and DNF. 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 10-career starts at the track he's only managed two Top-10 finishes despite having led 48 laps at the facility. Hamlin's last six Sonoma outings have netted 34th-, 37th-, 35th-, 23rd-, 26th- and 18th-place finishes. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement heading into this 350k road racing event.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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