Toyota/Save Mart 350 Preview: The Road Course Wild Card

Toyota/Save Mart 350 Preview: The 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 Monster Energy Cup Series will make its first stop of the season on the road-course circuit. Sonoma Raceway in California plays host to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 this Sunday afternoon.

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 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 the 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

We leave the ovals behind this week and head to the twisting turns as the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series will make its first stop of the season on the road-course circuit. Sonoma Raceway in California plays host to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 this Sunday afternoon.

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 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 the 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 Monster Energy 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 Monster Energy Cup regulars in the field.

Since this is the first of two road course events in the Monster Energy 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 13 years or 13 races at Sonoma Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kurt Busch11.4333881661,130107.5
Jimmie Johnson11.0379841431,09699.6
Kevin Harvick14.7314536093091.3
Kyle Busch17.12495511081190.7
Clint Bowyer10.7298438273090.1
Martin Truex Jr.21.0259819269888.6
Ryan Newman13.2275181187587.0
Jamie McMurray16.6198294270186.4
A.J. Allmendinger22.4219366049484.9
Kasey Kahne16.9320504181284.8
Joey Logano12.8196111857883.6
Kyle Larson20.38512930082.9
Denny Hamlin19.4241479256082.6
Brad Keselowski17.1160192445278.8
Chase Elliott14.532507576.8
Ryan Blaney16.039209175.0
Matt Kenseth20.51531060874.1
Paul Menard17.31195328569.2
Austin Dillon18.5331010368.1
Daniel Suarez16.015102766.2

The Sonoma road course has always played well to veteran drivers. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart dominated here for years. With the retirement of those stars, other veteran drivers have been locked in a battle for supremacy of this California road course. The last three seasons have seen Kyle Busch (15 seasons), Tony Stewart (18 seasons) and Kevin Harvick (18 seasons) visit victory lane at Sonoma. So it's not likely the young stars that will take the checkers this Sunday, but much more likely a driver of 10+ years' experience. Drivers like Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott have been racing well of late, but their chances of becoming a first-time Sonoma winner would seem to be pretty slim. However, past Sonoma winners like Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, and both Busch brothers are always in the hunt for the win each time we visit this unique road course. 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 a good streak the last two months of racing. He's climbed from 10th- to seventh-place in the driver point standings in his last seven starts, and has three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes during the span. 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 263-career circuits at the 12-turn California race track. His seven-career Top-5 finishes work out to an impressive 41-percent Top-5 rate at Sonoma Raceway. Busch rides a three-race Sonoma Top-10 streak into this weekend's event and that includes a runner-up finish in 2015. He is surging at the right time and a real threat to win Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a two-time winner at Sonoma Raceway. Coming off the Charlotte victory and a pair of Top 5s at Pocono at Michigan, Busch is racing very well right now. His recent outings at this California track have been pretty spot on. Busch won the 2015 installment of this event, and last season he qualified fourth on the starting grid and finished an impressive fifth-place. The No. 18 JGR team has the speed right now to contend for wins each week, and Busch presents the homerun potential at this road course to put on a dominant performance. If the right things click in terms of race flow and pit strategy, Busch could walk away this Sunday as a three-time Sonoma winner.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick doesn't have the career statistics at Sonoma to inspire major confidence this weekend, but he's been coming on strong at this facility the last three seasons. The driver of the No. 4 Ford rides a three-race Sonoma Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, and it all culminated in his first-career victory at this road course last season. He led a career-best 24 laps and held teammate, Clint Bowyer, at bay to capture the win. We're willing to be Harvick and crew chief, Rodney Childers, learned a lot from that experience. They should have a race-winning setup dialed-in before they even unload the car from the hauler on Friday.

Clint Bowyer -
The No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing team has performed well this season and Bowyer has rewarded them with a fifth-place position in the standings and two victories coming to Sonoma Raceway. His resume is very impressive at this road circuit. Bowyer won this event six years ago and he owns seven Top 5s and nine Top 10s in just 12-career starts at this facility. The veteran driver's skills on these winding circuits is clear once you examine the numbers. In this event one year ago, Bowyer finished runner-up to Kevin Harvick after a spirited battle for the win. You can guarantee he'll be very eager to take to the track this Sunday afternoon.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

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 a strong sixth-place in the championship standings after his good start to the season. The veteran driver has a pretty good recent Sonoma Raceway resume to boot. Truex finished fifth in this event two years ago, and he was on track to crack the Top 5 in last year's Toyota/Save Mart 350 when after leading 25 laps he suffered an engine failure. 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.

Joey Logano -
Logano is riding a two-race Top-10 streak, and three of his last four into California this week. The No. 22 team is pointed back in the right direction entering this weekend's race in wine country. Logano has a short but successful resume at the California road course. The Penske Racing driver has one pole position and four Top-10 finishes in his last seven trips to Sonoma Raceway. He has finished on the lead lap in all but one of his nine-career starts at this tricky facility. In this event one year ago Logano started 18th on the grid and finished 12th-place, which was his lowest finish in his last three attempts at the Sonoma course. All things being equal we expect the young driver to stay on a roll this Sunday afternoon at the 12-turn road course.

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 seven-time Monster Energy Cup Series champion has cracked the Top 10 in seven of his last nine Sonoma starts. Johnson's 56-percent Top-10 rate at this winding course ranks among the very best in the Monster Energy Cup Series. He comes to California with Top 10s in two of his last three starts and racing better than he has all season. This is a driver's course, and that gives the veteran Johnson an edge over younger and less experienced drivers.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has been heating up in recent weeks. His three-race Top-10 streak from Dover to Charlotte boosted him as high as sixth in the driver standings. The Joe Gibbs Racing star had some bad luck at Pocono and Michigan recently, but will look to hit the reset button this weekend. Sonoma Raceway hasn't been Hamlin's best track over the years, but things started turning more positive there two seasons ago. The veteran driver led a career-best 33 laps and finished runner-up to Tony Stewart in a brilliant performance. The effort snapped a six-race Sonoma Top-10 drought for Hamlin, and showed he does have the road racing skills to conquer this course. Hamlin returned last season and led 11 laps en route to a fourth-place finish. The veteran driver would seem to have solved this challenging road course.

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

Ryan Blaney -
The Penske Racing youngster will be making his third-career start at Sonoma Raceway this Sunday afternoon. That gives Blaney a little more seat time and experience here than some of the other younger drivers. His debut at the course two years ago was a subpar 23rd-place finish, but he returned last year and peddled to a surprising ninth-place finish in last year's Toyota/Save Mart 350. Blaney will now make his first start at Sonoma with his new Penske Racing No. 12 team. This will be the best equipment and support he's had for a Sonoma start. We believe the results should follow suit. Blaney should challenge the Top 10 again Sunday afternoon.

Chase Elliott -
Another young driver who'll be making his third-career Sonoma start this Sunday is Hendrick Motorsports driver Elliott. He has had a similar start to his career at this facility as Ryan Blaney. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet debuted at the track two years ago and finished a lowly 21st-place, however, he returned last season and nabbed an impressive eighth-place finish. Elliott and his counterpart Blaney are quick studies. The young driver should see the field equalized this weekend as aero, downforce and handling factors are rendered neutral by the winding California circuit. The Chevy Camaro can't be blamed as a handicap this weekend, and pure driver ability is put on center stage.

Brad Keselowski -
Despite Keselowski's past success at the New York road course, Watkins Glen, he's never been able to translate that to the much different track in California. In eighth-career starts at Sonoma Raceway, the Penske Racing star has only two Top-10 finishes and has only 24 laps led over those starts. However, last season it seemed that Keselowski finally turned the corner on his tough Sonoma record. He started 23rd on the gird and raced his way to 17 laps led and a brilliant third-place finish. It was by far his career-best Sonoma performance in eight starts. We're certain that Keselowski and crew chief, Paul Wolfe, learned a lot from that experience and took some pretty good notes. Sometimes attacking Sonoma with just the correct pit strategy can make all the difference in a poor or good finish.

Jamie McMurray -
The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran is turning his tough season around. McMurray has nabbed a pair of Top 10s and three Top 15s in his last three starts entering this weekend. He has a reasonably good career record at this winding road circuit, but it's what he's done in recent starts that grabs our attention the most. McMurray is a three-time pole winner at Sonoma, but two of those have come in his last five starts. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has finishes of fourth-, 11th-, 17th- and 10th-place in his last four visits to Sonoma Raceway. McMurray will likely bring a good car to the 12-turn course this weekend. We expect top results for McMurray and his Chip Ganassi Racing team in the Toyota / Save Mart 350.

Kasey Kahne -
While the past few seasons have been trying for Kahne, one thing has remained pretty consistent and that's his performance on the road courses. The Leavine Family Racing veteran has been battling some struggles this season, so he'll be very happy to see the winding circuit at Sonoma this weekend. Kahne has visited the Top 10 four of his last five starts coming into Sunday's battle in wine country, and that streak carries through what has been a few of his most difficult seasons racing at NASCAR's top level. His 43-percent career Top-10 rate at this track stands above most of the field. Many fantasy racing players will overlook Kahne this weekend, but deploy him with confidence and use that to your advantage in weekly lineup leagues.

Ryan Newman -
The 40-year-old veteran has put up some fantastic finishes in the rolling hills of California. Newman's seven-career Top-10 finishes in 16 starts ranks an impressive 44-percent for a Top-10 rate. His finishes of ninth-, eighth- and 15th-place in his last three starts shows that Newman is racing at a high level in recent Sonoma outings. The No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team has had some difficulties this season, but this is a race that can put him back on the right track. We really like the veteran experience that this driver and team brings to the table in a very young race field. When it comes to road course racing, experience is an invaluable asset.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

A.J. Allmendinger -
The California native has been one of our favorite picks over the last few seasons at Sonoma, but we have to turn the other direction this Sunday. After many starts and great expectations, Allmendinger has simply not delivered the finishes at Sonoma that his road-racing skills and his cars deserve. The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran has just two Top-10 finishes in nine-career starts at this facility. Allmendinger's starting positions of second-, first-, second- and fifth the last four seasons has translated into finishes of 37th-, 37th-, 14th- and 35th-place. We know Allmendinger loves this track, and gets a lot of hype every season here, but the finishes simply have not materialized. He's a much better fantasy racing start at the road course in Watkins Glen New York.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
Stenhouse has been a steady performer this season, but it's time to take a pass on the driver of the No. 17 Ford. If you play in weekly lineup leagues, keep him on the bench this Sunday afternoon. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has simply never performed well on this California road course. In five-career starts Stenhouse has cracked the Top 20 only once, while finishing outside the Top 25 four times. It all adds up to a 28.4 average finish. Last season's start was by far the worst. Stenhouse started way back in the field and got tangled up in a three-car accident just 32 laps into the race. He would take the DNF that day and finish dead last.

Kyle Larson -
The Chip Ganassi Racing star is coming off a tough 28th-place finish at Michigan, and unfortunately, we don't believe things will be much easier this week for the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet. Larson has four-career starts at Sonoma Raceway. None of those have fetched Top-10 finishes, and the average stands around 20.2. He had his best car at this facility last season and put it on the pole position. However, after leading nine laps early on, Larson would fade to a disappointing 26th-place finish. Larson could have that same speed this weekend, and qualify well. But the risks of deploying him are pretty high given his record finishing at this twisting circuit. Keep Larson on the bench this week in weekly lineup leagues and save his starts for the larger ovals.

William Byron -
Youth and inexperience are the biggest challenges to any driver attempting to tackle the Sonoma road circuit. Byron will be making his first-career start at Sonoma Raceway this Sunday, and to be honest, his first season in the No. 24 Chevrolet has been no cake walk. With only one Top 10 through the first 15 events, he sits a lowly 20th in the driver standings coming to Sonoma. As stated above this will be Byron's first-career Cup start at the Sonoma road course. The 20-year-old driver does have three-career Xfinity Series starts on road courses, with two Top-10 finishes. One of those came at Watkins Glen, and the other came at Road America. While Byron will attack this course Sunday, his odds of finishing well are not very good.

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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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