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Toyota 350 Preview: Road Racing Reset

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 Sonoma, Calif., hosts the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on 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. 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 Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Robby Gordon made their fame on winding circuits in IRL, CART, GT, or elsewhere. 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 Sonoma. Drivers like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon 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 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 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 seven years or seven races at Infineon Raceway.

Marcos Ambrose14.01504535348108.8
Tony Stewart13.62207362603107.9
Kurt Busch15.717023106593106.1
Juan Pablo Montoya9.0179179448104.0
Jeff Gordon8.6187477648299.1
Jimmie Johnson12.9191488551394.1
Ryan Newman13.7177141155193.5
Kyle Busch18.9125458841092.1
Jamie McMurray18.691153037986.6
Carl Edwards16.6162221439985.8
Clint Bowyer11.216611231285.1
Robby Gordon23.4133505135283.8
Denny Hamlin20.8131304824583.2
Kevin Harvick19.1142201046082.7
Jeff Burton19.31258040981.9
Kasey Kahne21.9157274136879.6
Greg Biffle13.11318934778.4
Joey Logano19.3574512474.9
A.J. Allmendinger17.5872014173.9
Mark Martin19.2761021473.6

For a number of years Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart dominated the 10-turn road course with seven wins in a nine year stretch. However, younger drivers stepped in and took over the reigns at the California road course the last five years. Young stars like Kyle Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne have dethroned the old NASCAR guard at Sonoma, so this race is more unpredictable than ever. In 2007 Montoya captured his first of two career road course victories with his win at Infineon Raceway. Despite being shut out of victory lane the last two seasons, he still presents a significant threat to win this event. In 2008 Busch completely dominated Sonoma by leading 78 of the 112 laps and capturing his first Sonoma win. In 2009 we saw Kahne work pit strategy perfectly at the California road course to dominate the last third of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 and win his first ever road course event. Last season saw Kurt Busch 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

Marcos Ambrose
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is nothing short of a road racing expert. Ambrose's racing roots in Australia's V8 Supercar Series honed his skills well before he ever climbed into a NASCAR stock car. He's cracked the Top 10 in his last three appearances at Infineon Raceway, and he led 35 laps in a flirtation with victory lane here in 2010. If there was any doubt about Ambrose's road racing abilities, his one win and four straight Top-3 finishes at Watkins Glen should silence any critics. Considering how well the No. 9 team is performing, Ambrose should be a top contender in this one.

Tony Stewart
Stewart is a two-time winner at Infineon Raceway and has a stellar average finish position of 11.5 in 13 career races at the facility. He comes to the road course this weekend in the middle of a peak in performance with third- and second-place finishes each of the last two events. Stewart has cracked the Top 10 in four of his last five trips to wine and cheese country, so it's clearly the driver that gets the job done in this case. He will be racing with the leaders this weekend in the Toyota/Save Mart 350, and if the breaks fall his way a third career Sonoma victory.

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 four 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 two seasons ago is proof of that fact. Considering how the EGR star is performing, coming off the Top 10 at Michigan, it wouldn't be shocking at all to see him pull into victory lane at Sonoma this weekend.

Jeff Gordon
Gordon was once an unstoppable force at Infineon Raceway, but he has 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 five consecutive Top-10 finishes here since that last win. The driver of the No. 24 Chevy finished runner-up to Kurt Busch in this event one year ago, so he is just one piece of the puzzle away from winning here again. Gordon has led well over 400 career laps at the 10-turn California road course, so no driver on the track this Sunday knows this place better than him.

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

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson joined the winner's list at Sonoma with his brilliant performance in this event two years 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 five-time Sprint Cup Series champion currently has a three-race Top 10 streak in tow at Sonoma. Johnson's 50 percent Top 10 rate at this winding course ranks among the very best in the Sprint Cup Series. We expect Johnson to be good, and possibly great in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Clint Bowyer
The No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team is rolling along well coming to Infineon Raceway this weekend. Bowyer is fresh off Top 10 runs at both Pocono and Michigan, so momentum is on his side. The Sonoma resume is short but skilled for Bowyer at this road circuit. He owns three Top 5s and four Top 10s in just six career starts at this facility. Bowyer finished a brilliant fourth in this event one year ago in his last start for car owner Richard Childress. Considering the experience and momentum, things look very good for the No. 15 Toyota team this weekend at the California road course.

Kasey Kahne
Kahne is a member of the winner's fraternity at Infineon Raceway. He captured the checkers here with an impressive performance in 2009. Kahne returned in the 2010 season and showed that performance was no fluke with a pole win and fourth-place finish. He and crew chief Kenny Francis have turned in some good performances here of late. Kahne hasn't qualified outside the Top 8 at Sonoma in the last six seasons. We expect to see Kahne racing in the Top 10 and possibly challenging for the win in the No. 5 Chevrolet of Hendrick Motorsports.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Mr. Consistency just got the 143-race winless streak off his back. What better time to come to the 10-turn California road course than now. Earnhardt has been more of a "have not" at Sonoma than a driver who has enjoyed much success. In 12 career starts he's never cracked the Top 10, although he has been painfully close with three 11th-place, one 12th-place and one 13th-place finish. Earnhardt will set his sites high in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. A first career Top 10 at Sonoma seems likely, and as well as this team is performing right now much more is entirely possible.

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 carries a two-race Sonoma Top 10 streak into this Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. Additionally, Harvick finished sixth in his last road course event at Watkins Glen last season. It's clear that the RCR star has the tools to succeed on these unique circuits. There may be no better sleeper play this week than the Richard Childress Racing veteran.

Greg Biffle
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran makes a surprisingly good start at Infineon 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 three Top 10s in his last six trips to the California road course. Those Top-10 finishes seem to coincide with Biffle's better seasons. He's racing about as well right now as we can remember so a good effort should be in store for Sunday's road course race at Sonoma.

Robby Gordon
This could be a big boom-or-bust play this week, but we feel compelled 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, part-time race team and forged a respectable 18th-place finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. In 2010 Gordon piloted the No. 7 RGM car to a brilliant runner-up finish at this facility. With well over 150 career laps led at Infineon Raceway, this owner/driver cannot be taken lightly.

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. 32 FAS Lane Racing Ford. Said has eight career Top 10s in Sprint Cup Series competition, and five of them have come at Infineon Raceway. He forged an eighth-place finish here two seasons ago, so Said has a reasonable shot at cracking the Top 15 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 three Sprint Cup Series starts at Sonoma have yielded finishes of seventh-, 13th- and 13th-place. The off-season move to Penske's No. 22 team should be considered an upgrade for this event. Penske put the last winner (Kurt Busch) in victory lane at Sonoma. When we combine that fact with Allmendinger's familiarity with this road course, we have to give him due consideration for the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Brian Vickers
The No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing team should have a good weekend in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. They welcome Vickers back to the driver's seat for the first time since early April when he piloted the team to a Top-20 finish at Martinsville. Vickers shouldn't miss a beat despite the long layoff. He owns one pole position and three Top-20 finishes in his last four races at the 10-turn road course. Considering how energized this driver and team has been this season, we expect Vickers to be impressive again at Sonoma this weekend.

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 respectable 19th- and 12th-place finishes in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 the last two seasons. The journeyman driver won a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at this 10-turn road course in 2007 and hammered out a brilliant runner-up finish in 2010. To say that Gilliland knows Infineon Raceway like the back of his hand is no exaggeration.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Matt Kenseth
The Roush Fenway Racing star comes to Infineon Raceway as our championship standings leader. For that, we have to downgrade the driver of the No. 17 Ford. All kidding aside, Kenseth is a wonderfully consistent driver most any weekend of the NASCAR season, but like anyone he has an Achilles heel. The 10-turn road course is that weakness for Kenseth. In 12 career starts he's managed one Top-10 finish and a lowly average finish of 21.5. 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 one-time winner, and recently at Infineon Raceway we have to give the temporary downgrade to Busch this week. After an improbable three straight weeks of engine failures, we have to finally wave the white flag and pull back. He's fallen from eighth- to 12th-place in the championship standings in the last three weeks. Busch has the loop stats and driving excellence to make something big happen this week, but the persistent engine problems of the No. 18 Toyota team have us yelling "no mas" heading to Sonoma this weekend.

Kurt Busch
Even though Busch won this event one year ago, we have to be realistic heading into the Toyota/Save Mart 350. His win last year at Sonoma was while racing for owner Roger Penske, but things have gone 180 degrees since his move to Phoenix Racing. Busch spun more than once at Michigan last week and struggled to a disappointing 30th-place finish. The veteran driver is getting poor race cars from the No. 51 team and he's over-driving them to try to compensate. That's not a good situation to find yourself in when racing in the Sprint Cup Series.

David Ragan
The season of redefining expectations continues for the Front Row Motorsports driver. Ragan enters this event ranked a lowly 29th in the driver standings and with only one Top-10 finish to his credit in 2012. He has five career starts at Infineon Raceway and with no Top-20 finishes to his credit. Ragan has never failed to finish off the lead lap at Sonoma, but he's almost always bringing up the rear of the field when the checkered flag waves. His first start at this facility in something other than a Roush Ford is not an inspiring prospect.