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Weekly Preview: Road Course Racing in Sonoma

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will pay its first visit to the road course circuit for 2010 this weekend. Infineon Raceway in the wine and cheese country of Sonoma, Calif., hosts the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday. The departure from oval tracks will have the crew chiefs scrambling to dust off the road course playbooks for this event. Infineon Raceway is a two-mile, 10-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. 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 drivers who have come over from other racing series that compete on road circuits have a leg up this weekend. Guys like Juan Palo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Sam Hornish Jr. cut their teeth on winding circuits in other racing series. That will pay big dividends this weekend.

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 outperform when we visit Infineon Raceway. Drivers like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch don't miss a step when we come to Sonoma. These drivers have great fantasy racing value on the circuit's many ovals, and they also make great selections on the road circuits. Their experience with left turns will make them better than half the Sprint Cup regulars in the field.

Since this is the first of two road course events in the Sprint Cup schedule, we'll have to almost solely rely on recent historical data this weekend. The current hot streaks entering this race will play a small part, but really this style of track is a game-changer for our prognostications. 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 leg-up in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The loop stats shown below cover the last five years or five races at Infineon Raceway.

Tony Stewart9.41616857443113.2
Juan Pablo Montoya4.37797267111.3
Kyle Busch16.4714288313101.9
Kurt Busch15.41011330387101.4
Marcos Ambrose22.56022014599.6
Ryan Newman11.0120121143098.8
Jeff Gordon10.6118377632797.1
Jamie McMurray20.070103033289.6
Boris Said20.0979136388.8
Denny Hamlin13.5100153617587.1
Carl Edwards16.8109221430986.8
Robby Gordon28.894495126486.4
Jeff Burton17.4914035286.4
Joey Logano19.026205886.2
Elliott Sadler11.4853028985.9
Greg Biffle12.41027927282.2
Clint Bowyer8.0783016781.4
Jimmie Johnson16.4111113030680.4
Mark Martin21.0401016477.4
Kevin Harvick24.48017530776.2

For a number of years Jeff Gordon dominated the 10-turn road course with five wins in nine years. However, he's "0" for the last three visits to the California road course and younger stars have stepped into the spot light. In 2007 Juan Pablo Montoya gradually worked his way to the front over the course of the race only to lead the last seven laps, but the most important ones of the race on his way to winning his first NASCAR race. In 2008 Kyle Busch completely dominated Sonoma by leading 78 of the 112 laps and capturing his first Sonoma win. Last season saw Kasey Kahne use smart racing and sound pit strategy to lead the final 33 laps and capture his first victory at Infineon Raceway. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch have both flirted with victory lane at the facility but have never won. Considering how well these two stars have raced this season, we could see either of those dry spells end on Sunday. 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

Kyle Busch – Not only has Busch been running well of late, but he's flexed his racing muscles at road circuits in the past. He's a one-time Sonoma winner, and the Joe Gibbs Racing star has also won at the road course in Watkins Glen. Busch also has one Nationwide Series win at the circuit in Mexico City. Considering how well the No. 18 team is performing right now, Busch is a very dangerous driver on these style tracks.

Tony Stewart – Stewart is a two-time winner at Infineon Raceway and has a stellar average finish position of 9.3 in 11 career races at the facility. He comes to the road course this weekend in the middle of turning his slow start to the season around, and he'll pull out all the stops to challenge for what would be a season-changing win this Sunday. Stewart will be running up front and finish there in this event.

Juan Pablo Montoya – The Columbian-born driver burst onto the scene at Sonoma in 2007 and turned his first career Sprint Cup start at the road course into his first career Sprint Cup victory. He followed that effort up with consecutive sixth-place finishes the last two years. Fast-forward to 2010 and now Montoya is considered a legitimate NASCAR star and not just a cross-over driver anymore. It wouldn't be shocking at all to see the Earnhardt-Ganassi driver pull into victory lane at Sonoma.

Kurt Busch – Even though Busch has never won at Infineon Raceway he's been painfully close on a couple occasions. Already a multi-race winner in 2010, and a legitimate contender for the championship, Busch could be poised for victory lane at the 10-turn road course. He has won one pole, led over 60 laps and finished in the Top 5 on three occasions at Sonoma. The Blue Deuce will be a fixture among the leaders this weekend.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Jeff Gordon – Gordon was once the top dog at Infineon Raceway, but we have to give him the downgrade for this Toyota/Save Mart 350. Despite his five career wins at the track, he's failed to lead a lap in his last three visits to Sonoma and he's looked quite human in doing so. Don't get us wrong, Gordon still makes a very good fantasy racing play this weekend, he's just not the Sonoma juggernaught we've seen in the past. We expect a finish comparable with his seventh-, third- and ninth-place finishes the last three years at the winding road course.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin has been enjoying what is shaping up to be a career season for the Joe Gibbs Racing star, so the No. 11 team will be looking forward to Sonoma this weekend. Hamlin's four career starts at the track have been very productive. He's posted a pair of Top 10's in those outings. His last visit to Infineon Raceway yielded a career-best fifth-place finish.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson joins his Rick Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon in our solid plays list this week. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has been sneaky-good at the 10-turn road course in recent seasons, but not the dominant force that he is on ovals. Johnson has cracked the Top 10 in two of his last four visits to the 10-turn road circuit. In 2009 he posted a career-best fourth-place finish at the facility. We expect Johnson to be solid, but not spectacular in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Marcos Ambrose – The Australian's road racing skills are well documented. Ambrose qualified third and finished third at Sonoma last season and his racing roots in Australia's V8 Supercar Series has him better prepared to race at this road courses than most of the field combined. Ambrose has collected a pair of Nationwide Series wins at Watkins Glen, so this JTG Daugherty Racing driver is a real dangerous competitor at these tracks.

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

Ryan Newman – The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran has been a consistent performer this season and very useful in fantasy racing leagues. He takes bump up in value at Sonoma on Sunday. Newman has been a productive driver at the 10-turn road course in California over his eight-year NASCAR career. He has five Top-10 finishes in those eight starts and he's never finished worse than 20th at the facility.

Clint Bowyer – Bowyer has been coming on of late with good runs at Charlotte, Pocono and Michigan. He has good numbers at Infineon Raceway. The driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet has posted three Top 10's in his four career starts at Sonoma. Only Juan Pablo Montoya has a better average finish at the facility during this span. That's a major complement to Bowyer's road racing skills.

Boris Said – Said is probably one of the better known road course specialists in the Sprint Cup Series. The flamboyant, curly-headed driver always shows up Sonoma weekend and fields a challenge on the Top 10. This season he will be driving the No. 26 Ford of Latitude Motorsports. While this is a small race team with limited potential, Said gives them an honest shot at a Top-10 finish. Said owns one pole and four Top 10's in 10 career starts at Infineon Raceway.

Elliott Sadler – Sadler has always been a consistent performer at Infineon Raceway. Not only does he boast five Top 10's in his last eight starts at the track, but he's only finished outside the Top 20 twice in his 11 career starts at Sonoma. That kind of performance is worthy of fantasy racing consideration in deeper leagues.

Jeff Burton – We would like to rank Burton higher than this in our weekly preview, but his inconsistency at Sonoma keeps him in the sleepers list this weekend. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has cracked the Top 10 in three of his last six visits to the 10-turn road course. Burton's team has been unloading fast cars every weekend this season, so we're anticipating an “up-tick” weekend for the veteran driver at Infineon Raceway.

Max Papis – The Italian road course expert has two career Sprint Cup starts at Sonoma, with a top finish of 12th in last year's Toyota/Save Mart 350. Papis will likely be driving the No. 13 Toyota of Germain Racing this weekend. He scored his only career Top 10 in Sprint Cup racing on the road course in Watkins Glen, so he should be up to the task of cracking the Top 15 this weekend at Infineon Raceway.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Robby Gordon
– Robby Gordon Motorsports has reached the bottom of the abyss in their brief NASCAR existence. Gordon's team briefly slipped outside the Top 35 recently and the veteran driver's team is at the end of their sponsorship rope. He is a one-time winner (2003) at the California road course, but he's failed to crack the Top 15 in his six races there since the win. The No. 7 team has been so bad recently at Infineon Raceway that he's collected a pair of 36th-place finishes in his last two visits to wine and cheese country.

David Reutimann – Reutimann has been one of the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series the last several weeks, but this is not a weekend to roll the Michael Waltrip Racing star in your fantasy racing lineups. While intermediate ovals are among his best venues, the road courses are among the worst for the driver of the No. 00 Toyota. Reutimann has two career starts at Sonoma, with neither finish inside the Top 30.

Mark Martin – Despite being a one-time Sonoma winner with 13 career Top 10's at the track, the veteran driver makes a poor fantasy racing play for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Four of his last five visits to Infineon Raceway have yielded results outside the Top 10, including a terrible 35th-place finish in this race one year ago. Considering how poorly the No. 5 team has started this season, it's a big gamble to place your hopes on Martin this Sunday.

David Ragan – The struggling No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing team won't likely make it off the canvass this weekend at Sonoma. Ragan's two-season slump has continued in 2010, and his solidarity with owner Jack Roush has even come into question of late. The road courses have been brutal to this young driver during his brief Sprint Cup career. Ragan's career finishes of 29th-, 24th- and 33rd at Infineon Raceway highlight what to expect in this event.