Toyota/Save Mart 350 Preview: Returning to Road Circuits

Toyota/Save Mart 350 Preview: Returning to Road Circuits

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We leave the ovals behind yet again this week as the NASCAR Cup Series will make its second stop of the season at a road course. Sonoma Raceway in California plays host to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday afternoon. 

Sonoma Raceway is a 2.52-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 of 160 feet in elevation change, so this course is very hard on the driver and equipment. The 180-degree carousel 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 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. 

This will be NASCAR's first visit to the state of California since February's Auto Club Speedway event. This race signals the beginning of the heart of NASCAR's road course schedule. Over the next 10 weeks, the series will race on four different road circuits. Since we haven't been on the twisting turns since COTA in late March, this will be an adjustment race to get the drivers back into a road course state of mind. Those who had successful performances at COTA several weeks ago will

We leave the ovals behind yet again this week as the NASCAR Cup Series will make its second stop of the season at a road course. Sonoma Raceway in California plays host to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday afternoon. 

Sonoma Raceway is a 2.52-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 of 160 feet in elevation change, so this course is very hard on the driver and equipment. The 180-degree carousel 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 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. 

This will be NASCAR's first visit to the state of California since February's Auto Club Speedway event. This race signals the beginning of the heart of NASCAR's road course schedule. Over the next 10 weeks, the series will race on four different road circuits. Since we haven't been on the twisting turns since COTA in late March, this will be an adjustment race to get the drivers back into a road course state of mind. Those who had successful performances at COTA several weeks ago will have to rediscover their road racing groove this weekend. Additionally, the teams that perform well on the Sonoma circuit Sunday are set up to have additional success in the upcoming road course events of July and August. So we need to pay careful attention to the results of Sunday's Toyota Save Mart 350.   

Since this is the second of six road course events in the NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2022, we'll have some recent data to examine but we'll also need to cast an eye towards historical trends at this particular facility. 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 17 years or 16 races at Sonoma Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kurt Busch10.8398901751,368105.3
Martin Truex Jr.17.134012721397798.1
Chase Elliott14.4116131632796.0
Kyle Busch14.6328691151,07594.8
Kevin Harvick13.838299951,14293.2
Kyle Larson15.1160456849592.4
Denny Hamlin17.13285710276285.2
AJ Allmendinger24.0225386552384.0
Joey Logano13.4258222377683.9
Brad Keselowski16.6234242463680.0
Ryan Blaney15.8846027079.2
Erik Jones12.8623118276.1
William Byron26.361132615075.5
Daniel Suarez15.0666017474.4
Christopher Bell24.021105472.3
Tyler Reddick19.016104368.8
Daniel Hemric15.07002368.2
Chris Buescher18.6644419767.6
Alex Bowman18.4701020667.5
Austin Dillon18.1581017365.3

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. More recently, veterans such as Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson have dominated the twisting turns of the California circuit.  So it's not likely that one of the young stars will take the checkers this Sunday, but much more likely a driver of 10-plus years' experience. Drivers like Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Chase Elliott are the next generation of rising stars in the sport, and it will be their task to upset the veterans at Sonoma this week. Of those, Elliott is the most likely candidate to break the Sonoma veteran driver trend. However, this is one Cup Series road circuit where Elliott is yet to win. 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 fantasy racing league this weekend.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Martin Truex Jr. – The three-time Sonoma winner comes back to the scene of his dominant back-to-back victories of 2018-19. Truex rides into California a strong fifth-place in the championship standings after his good start to the season. The veteran driver has a great road racing resume. Truex has a pair of victories and 121-combined laps led in his last three starts at the California road course, as well as a three-race Top-3 streak. Times have been a bit leaner on the road courses the past couple seasons. Still, Truex has managed to perform at a high level as his seventh-place finish at COTA earlier this season demonstrates. Of all the road courses NASCAR competes on, Sonoma is by far his favorite. We expect the Joe Gibbs Racing star to elevate his game in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.       

Kyle Busch – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a two-time winner at Sonoma Raceway. Aside from Watkins Glen, the Sonoma circuit is Busch's most successful road course. He rides a strong six-race Sonoma Top-10 streak into Sunday's action that includes one win and one runner-up finish. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota struggled for much of his career at this facility, but the light switch flipped on with his 2015 victory in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Busch has been piling on the good performances here ever since. The new, Next-Gen car will be a bit of an added wrinkle this weekend. However, Busch has been doing strong work in the new car in recent races with two runner-up finishes and third-place finish in the last three events. He'll be a force to contend with in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Chase Elliott – Among all the experienced veteran drivers, youngster Elliott will be making just his sixth-career Sonoma start this Sunday afternoon. He has two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in those five prior starts. This is one NASCAR road course that has yet to yield a victory to the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott's road circuit exploits are pretty well documented.  He has seven total victories in 20 starts so far at a robust 35-percent win rate. No other driver in NASCAR has that high of a win rate on the winding circuits. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is coming off a fourth-place finish at COTA earlier this season, so he's been sharp. Elliott scored a career-best Sonoma finish of second-place in this event one year ago.       

Ross Chastain – Chastain has been the enigma of this puzzling NASCAR season, and he'll continue to be a stand out again this weekend at the California road circuit. The Trackhouse Racing veteran scored the win in our only road racing event of the season thus far at COTA in March. That day he did outstanding work to lead the most laps and fend off several drivers on the last lap to capture that shocking victory. Chastain's two prior starts at Sonoma Raceway have netted a Top-10 finish, which was a steady seventh-place in this event one year ago. It appears that will have been good prep work for Chastain's much bigger splash in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin has just recently gotten his season turned around with good performances on intermediate ovals. He'll hope to carry that momentum forward to the road courses this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been a very consistent performer on these style circuits the last year and-a-half. Hamlin has five Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts on these style tracks. That includes his eighth-place finish at Sonoma last season. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota rides a five-race Sonoma Top-10 streak into this weekend's action and that streak has boosted his career Top-10 rate at the California track to 47-percent. We should see Hamlin lead a few laps and challenge the Top 5 Sunday in wine and cheese country.    

Christopher Bell – Since winning on the Daytona road circuit in 2021, Bell has served notice that he'll be a driver to contend with on these twisting courses. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has racked up a runner-up finish and four Top 10's on these style tracks since that victory. Sonoma last season was unfortunately a lowlight with a subpar 24th-place finish in Bell's debut at the facility. However, there's good reason to believe he'll be greatly improved in this second start at Sonoma Raceway. In the only road course start of 2022 in the new stock car, Bell carved up the COTA circuit in Austin, Texas and claimed a strong third-place finish. That left a pretty big impression with us. He now has four Top 10's in his last five road course starts and rides a lot of momentum into California this weekend.

Kyle Larson – The only driver to really match Chase Elliott's excellence the last year or so on the winding circuits is Larson. Over the last 10 road course events, he's collected three wins, one runner-up finish and five Top 10's. Larson's debut in the new Next-Gen car on a road circuit was nothing special, but he should be ready for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has picked up his game at this track in recent seasons. Larson has captured the last four-straight Sonoma pole positions, and he claimed his first-career victory at the Sonoma circuit in this event one year ago. We don't believe Larson is in a place or position to win again at this track, but he's been fast enough and good enough of late to peddle his Hendrick Chevy to a strong Top-10 finish.   

AJ Allmendinger – The last time we saw Allmendinger in action on a Cup Series road course, he was in a three-way battle for the win in the closing laps at COTA in March. The Kaulig Racing veteran took the lead briefly during that tussle, but would eventually get punted in the closing turns and fall short of the victory. Allmendinger has always been known for his road racing excellence. He has a win and three Top-10 finishes in his last six Cup Series road course starts. The driver of the No. 16 Chevrolet has one pole position and two Top 10's in his career at this facility, but that was racing for lesser equipped teams mostly. His Kaulig Racing outfit will give him a car capable of challenging for the win Sunday in Sonoma. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Sonoma & solid upside

Ryan Blaney – The Penske Racing youngster will be making his sixth-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 came back in 2016 and was a subpar 23rd-place finish, but he returned in 2017 and peddled to a surprising ninth-place finish in that season's Toyota/Save Mart 350. Since then, he's nabbed three Top 10's in his last four Sonoma starts. When the Cup Series visited COTA earlier this season, it was Blaney who captured the pole position and finished sixth-place in the Echopark Automotive Texas Grand Prix. Blaney rides a three-race road course Top-10 streak into Sunday's action. 

Alex Bowman – With Top-10 finishes in two of his last three Sonoma starts, Bowman is quickly getting the hang of racing at the undulating Sonoma course. Road racing in general has been pretty consistent for the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet the last year and-a-half. Bowman has six Top 10's in his last 10 road course starts. That includes his stellar runner-up performance in the Next-Gen car at COTA earlier this season. Over that 10-race span, Bowman has averaged a strong 11.8 average finish on an array of different road courses. While not really much of a threat to win, the Hendrick Motorsports veteran more than makes up for it in terms of consistency on these style tracks.       

Kurt Busch – Busch has the history here that screams road course start. 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 206-career circuits at the 12-turn California race track. His 11-career Top-10 finishes work out to an impressive 55-percent Top-10 rate at Sonoma Raceway. Busch has five Top 10's in his last six Sonoma starts coming to California this week. The driver of the No. 45 Toyota has been racing well of late. Busch has a victory and third-place finish in two of his last three starts. While those were intermediate ovals, he should carry that momentum into wine and cheese country this weekend.    

Austin Cindric – This will be Cindric's first Cup Series start at Sonoma Raceway, but we would warn against underestimating his chances in this weekend's Toyota/Save Mart 350. Cindric made a name for himself collecting wins and performing well on the road courses in the lower divisions of NASCAR. He has five victories and 14 Top-5 finishes on these style tracks in the Xfinity Series alone. The Penske Racing youngster is beginning to rediscover that groove in the Cup car as well. Cindric's last two road course starts have netted ninth-place (Indy GP) and eighth-place (COTA) finishes to his credit. In fact, he led 11 laps and made a run at the win in COTA in March. The driver of the No. 2 Ford should adapt quickly to this circuit this weekend and produce very favorable results in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.  

Joey Logano – Coming off the victory at World Wide Technology Raceway this past Sunday, Logano rides a lot of momentum into California this week. While he may not revisit victory lane, there's ample evidence to suggest a Top-10 performance is more than possible. He qualified and raced well at COTA earlier this spring, but ran into some problems late in that race. Logano has 12-career starts at Sonoma Raceway with five Top-10 finishes (42-percent) to his credit. His outing in this event one year ago netted a strong fourth-place finish in last season's Toyota/Save Mart 350. He should be a Top-10 finisher Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

Tyler Reddick – The young Richard Childress Racing has shown some real ability in road course racing the last year or so. Reddick has collected two Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts on these twisting tracks. One of those was a brilliant runner-up finish last fall on the Charlotte Roval. Earlier this season at COTA, the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet led 2 laps and claimed a strong fifth-place finish in the Echopark Automotive Texas Grand Prix. This will be Reddick's second-career start at Sonoma Raceway. He earned a pedestrian 19th-place finish last season in his track debut at Sonoma. We believe Reddick will show what he's learned in this style of racing since that effort. The young driver should be a face among the Top 10 at the conclusion of Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Bubba Wallace – The 23XI Racing driver has three-career starts at Sonoma. So experience is there, but the results are thin. With just one Top-15 vs. two finishes outside the Top 25, the results are mediocre at best.  The average finish checks in around 23.0. Recent road course outings the last two seasons have yielded a similar 23.7 average finish, and that includes his DNF at COTA earlier this season. Wallace was raised racing on short track ovals, and the road courses are still something outside his comfort zone to this point in his Cup Series career. The results have yet to come, so it's not likely that he'll reverse those trends in his fourth-career start at Sonoma Raceway. 

Brad Keselowski – The long 2022 season at Roush continued for Keselowski last weekend at WWTR. He struggled to a 20th-place finish in the Enjoy Illinois 300. Keselowski still only has one Top-10 finish so far in 15 starts this season. His 19.4 average finish for the year is well below expectations. In addition to his current struggles, road racing has not been kind to the driver of the No. 6 Ford in recent starts. Keselowski has just one Top 10 in his last 10 road course starts. That's a bit uncharacteristic for this veteran driver. Sonoma Raceway hasn't held much success for him over the years either. In 11-career starts Keselowski has just one Top-10 finish. His career 16.6 average finish at the California course isn't that bad, but it's not exceptional either.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Stenhouse has been pretty strong in recent intermediate oval races, but there's reason for caution this weekend at the California road circuit. The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran is less than exceptional on these winding circuits. In Stenhouse's last 10 road course starts he has just two Top-15 finishes vs. two DNF's. His average finish during that span is at 21.0. Earlier this season at COTA, the veteran driver struggled to a DNF and 37th-place finish in his first road course start with the new Next-Gen car. Stenhouse's average finish in eight Sonoma starts is a lowly 27.3. Given all the evidence we have to be very reserved about Stenhouse's chances at Sonoma Raceway.    

Aric Almirola – Coming off the Top-5 finish at WWTR last Sunday, we have to reconsider Almirola's potential at Sonoma Raceway. While short tracks and intermediate ovals have been kind to the driver of the No. 10 Ford over the years, road circuits haven't been as kind. Almirola's nine-career starts at Sonoma Raceway have only netted two Top 10's (22-percent) and his average finish of 20.4 isn't inspiring at all. In this event one year ago the Stewart Haas Racing driver labored to a subpar 27th-place finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. This season's only road course race to this point was a 19th-place finish for Almirola at COTA. However, the wide track and wide turns of the Austin circuit don't compare to the tight turns of Sonoma. Almirola is a driver to bench in weekly lineup leagues this weekend.

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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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