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Toyota 350 Preview: The House that Gordon Built

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 make its first stop on the road course circuit this weekend. Infineon Raceway in the wine and cheese country of Sonoma, Calif., is setting for Sunday's the Toyota/Save Mart 350. As we leave the oval tracks in the rear view mirror, 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. Our open-wheel racing defectors who have come over from other racing series that compete on road circuits have a leg up this weekend. Guys like Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Robby Gordon made their fame 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 shine when we visit Infineon Raceway. Drivers like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch don't miss a beat 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 courses like Infineon Raceway. Their experience with shifting and making right 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 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 leg up in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The loop stats shown below cover the last six years or six races at Infineon Raceway.

Tony Stewart9.31836859529110.4
Juan Pablo Montoya5.8126107354108.6
Marcos Ambrose17.0964335248108.4
Jeff Gordon9.71614376432100.2
Kurt Busch18.21401430486100.0
Ryan Newman11.8148121149796.3
Jimmie Johnson13.8143438541691.7
Kyle Busch20.271438831391.3
Boris Said18.01359944590.0
Robby Gordon24.3131505134188.3
Jamie McMurray19.274133033887.2
Jeff Burton19.01228040885.5
Carl Edwards18.8133221433483.8
Greg Biffle11.51247933883.0
Kevin Harvick20.811520541282.6
Denny Hamlin17.6107173618979.3
Clint Bowyer12.61214121678.8
Kasey Kahne22.2117224128878.5
Mark Martin19.3651021176.6
Matt Kenseth19.7830024872.1

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 four visits to the California road course and younger stars have stepped into the spot light. Now that crew chief Alan Gustafson has Gordon back to his winning ways, we have to give Gordon his due respect this weekend, after all he dominated this track for much of the last decade. In 2007 Juan Pablo Montoya captured his first of two road course victories with his win at Sonoma. Despite being shut out of victory lane the last three races here, he still presents a significant threat to win. In 2008 Kyle Busch completely dominated Sonoma by leading 78 of the 112 laps and capturing his first Sonoma win. Last season saw Jimmie Johnson turn in one of his best road course performances and capture his first victory at Infineon Raceway. Even though the current theme at Infineon Raceway points to first-time winners, we feel like there's a very good chance for a repeat winner this weekend. 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

Jeff Gordon
Gordon was once an unstoppable force at Infineon Raceway, but he 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 four consecutive Top-10 finishes here since that last win. Now that Gordon is showing race-winning form again in 2011, we feel that the possibility of taking the win at Infineon Raceway is likely. The No. 24 team's chemistry is the best it's been in years.

Tony Stewart
Stewart is a two-time winner at Infineon Raceway and has a stellar average finish position of 9.2 in 12 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 has led laps in three of his last four trips to Sonoma and collected Top-10 finishes in each of those races. He will be racing with the leaders this weekend in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Juan Pablo Montoya
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing 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. Montoya's three starts at Infineon Raceway since that victory have netted a pair of sixth-place and a 10th-place finish. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet has incredible road course skills. Montoya's dominant victory at Watkins Glen last season is proof of that fact. It wouldn't be shocking at all to see him pull into victory lane at Sonoma this weekend.

Kurt Busch
Even though Busch has never won at Infineon Raceway he's been painfully close on more than one occasion. Given how well he's raced at this facility over they years, Busch could be poised for victory lane at the 10-turn road course this Sunday afternoon. He owns one career pole, led over 60 laps and finished in the Top 5 on three occasions at Sonoma. The Penske Racing star could easily assert his dominance in this road circuit event.

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

Kyle Busch
Not only has Busch been running well of late, but he's flexed his racing muscles at road courses 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, New York. 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 has to be taken very seriously on these style tracks.

Kasey Kahne
Kahne is another of our win-fraternity at Infineon Raceway. He captured the checkers here with an impressive performance in 2009. Kahne returned last season and showed that was no fluke with a pole win and fourth-place finish in last year's Toyota/Save Mart 350. Now Racing for Red Bull in 2011, we don't expect this trend to change. We expect to see Kahne racing in the Top 10 and possibly challenging for the win in the No. 4 Toyota.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson joined the winner's list at Sonoma with his brilliant performance in this event one year ago. 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 reigning Sprint Cup Series champion has cracked the Top 5 in each of his last two visits to the 10-turn road circuit. In 2009 he posted a fourth-place finish at the facility. We expect Johnson to be good, and possibly great in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Marcos Ambrose
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is an absolute ringer on the road courses. Ambrose's racing roots in Australia's V8 Supercar Series has him better prepared to race at this road course than most of the field combined. He's cracked the Top 10 in his last two appearances at Infineon Raceway, and he led 35 laps en route to finishing sixth here last season. If there was any doubt about Ambrose's road racing abilities, his three straight Top-3 finishes at Watkins Glen should silence any critics. If you're looking for an upset candidate to sneak into victory lane in the Toyota/Save Mart 350, Ambrose is your guy.

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

Kevin Harvick
Harvick doesn't have the career statistics to inspire confidence this weekend at Sonoma, 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. 29 Chevrolet posted a third-place finish in this event one year ago, and he finished 11th at Watkins Glen last season. It's clear that Harvick has the tools to succeed on these unique circuits. There may be no better sleeper play this week than the Richard Childress Racing veteran.

Robby Gordon
This could be a big boom-or-bust play this week, but we feel inspired to place Gordon in the sleepers list. The big reason for our optimism is that he can crack the Top 5 just as easily as he can fizzle out at Infineon Raceway. Much to our surprise, Gordon came here last season with his under-funded race team and forged a runner-up finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. That effort snapped a six-race Top 10 drought for the No. 7 team at this facility. One simply cannot overlook the road racing ability of this one-time Sonoma winner.

Boris Said
The most recognized driver in the garage area on road course weekends has to be Said. For someone who doesn't race regularly in NASCAR, the flamboyant road racing specialist is on everyone's radar screen when we visit Sonoma, California. This season he will be driving the No. 51 Chevrolet of Phoenix Racing. Said has eight career Top 10's in Sprint Cup Series competition, and five of them have come at Infineon Raceway. He forged an eighth-place finish here last season for a much smaller race team, so Said has some expectations to live up to on Sunday afternoon.

A.J. Allmendinger
Allmendinger has always been a consistent performer at Infineon Raceway. He spent much of his formative racing years competing at this 10-turn road course. His last two Sprint Cup Series starts at Sonoma have yielded finishes of seventh- and 13th-place. Allmendinger just knows how to wheel a stock car around this course. If recent performance is any indicator, a similar finish this Sunday afternoon is worthy of fantasy racing consideration in deeper leagues.

Andy Lally
TRG Motorsports team should have a good weekend in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Lally has been getting a lot of seat time in the No. 71 car this season, and this weekend promises a return to his racing roots. All 24 of his Grand AM sports car victories came on road circuits. That was where Lally cut his teeth before stepping into a stock car in NASCAR. That experience should yield great dividends this weekend at Infineon Raceway. Lally cracked the Top 20 for this team at Watkins Glen last season, and a similar effort should be in store at Sonoma.

David Gilliland
Gilliland seems to respond like a lot of other drivers that are familiar with Infineon 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 a Top-20 finish in last season's Toyota/Save Mart 350. The journeyman driver won a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at this 10-turn road course in 2007, and that has to be a major source of confidence each time he visits Sonoma.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Joey Logano
The rising star of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable still has a lot to learn about racing Sprint Cup Series stock cars. This is especially true when we visit road courses. Logano's two career Sonoma efforts have left fantasy racing players feeling a little shortchanged with 19th- and 33rd-place finishes. His two starts at the road course in Watkins Glen, New York are similarly disappointing. For a talented young driver who grew up racing ovals, Logano still has a lot to learn on these style tracks.

Brad Keselowski
The same youth issues that we have with Logano on road courses, we have also with Penske Racing driver Keselowski. His one career start at Sonoma last season resulted in a crash and DNF. Keselowski registered a much better, but unspectacular 20th-place finish in his one Watkins Glen start. There simply isn't enough seat time on these road courses to endorse a start for Keselowski this weekend at Infineon Raceway.

Jeff Burton
The season of misery continues for the Richard Childress Racing veteran. Burton enters this event ranked a lowly 25th in the driver standings and without a single Top 10 to his credit in 2011. Burton has finished outside the Top 20 in each of his last two Infineon Raceway starts. Considering the struggles of the No. 31 Chevrolet team right now, we don't see that trend changing on Sunday afternoon.

David Ragan
The No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing team won't likely make it off the canvass this weekend at Sonoma. Ragan has had some ups-and-downs this season, but he's generally been quite good on the larger ovals. The road courses have been brutal to this young driver during his brief Sprint Cup career. Ragan's career finishes of 29th-, 24th-, 33rd- and 25th-place at Infineon Raceway highlight what to expect in this event. It's better to keep the young Roush driver on the bench this weekend and deploy him elsewhere.
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