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

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.

We head to wine country this weekend as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will make its first stop on the road course circuit. Sonoma Raceway in California plays host to 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. Sonoma Raceway is a two-mile, 12-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. 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 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 action on the road circuits the last couple 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 Sprint Cup Series regulars that really shine when we visit Sonoma Raceway. Drivers like Tony Stewart, 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 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 eight years or eight races at Sonoma Raceway.

Kurt Busch14.118635108705107.8
Tony Stewart12.12527962706107.5
Marcos Ambrose12.81874946452106.8
Jeff Gordon8.32065689593101.1
Juan Pablo Montoya13.219523950997.8
Jimmie Johnson11.9204528562596.6
Clint Bowyer9.7182267342493.3
Kyle Busch18.6145488851292.8
Ryan Newman14.3185151157189.9
Carl Edwards17.1181271447184.9
Jamie McMurray18.6104153038584.4
Kevin Harvick18.8153201049982.2
Kasey Kahne20.9183284145481.1
Denny Hamlin22.9147304827881.1
Jeff Burton18.31299041580.8
Greg Biffle12.41548941079.3
Martin Truex Jr.21.7145321634578.3
Joey Logano17.0874522678.2
A.J. Allmendinger15.81208021677.6
Brad Keselowski19.0814017675.6

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 six 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 Sonoma Raceway. Despite being shut out of victory lane the last three 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 young Michael Waltrip Racing star Clint Bowyer turn in one of his best road course performances and capture his first victory at Sonoma Raceway. Even though the current theme at Sonoma Raceway points to first-time winners, we feel like there's a very good chance for a repeat winner this weekend. Veterans like Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Stewart are racing very well coming into this weekend, and all are past Sonoma winners. So the chances for a repeat victor this Sunday afternoon are at least somewhat probable. We'll take a look at the stats, Sonoma's history and the road course experts to give you the drivers you need to dominate your league this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Tony Stewart -
Stewart is a two-time winner at Sonoma Raceway and has a stellar average finish position of 10.9 in 14 career races at the facility. He comes to the road course this weekend in the middle of a peak in performance with a victory, fourth- and fifth-place finishes each of the last three events. Stewart has cracked the Top 10 in five of his last six trips to wine country, including a pair of runner-up finishes during that span. There's little doubt that 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 will be in store.

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 five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has a four-race Top 10 streak in tow at Sonoma, including a fifth-place finish in this race one year ago. Johnson's 55 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.

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 four appearances at Sonoma Raceway, and he led 35 laps in a flirtation with victory lane here in 2010. In this event one year ago, the driver of the No. 9 Ford won the pole position, led 11 laps and fell to eighth-place by the end of the day. Considering that he's been held out of winner's circle at Sonoma, he must feel as though he has some unfinished business this weekend. Ambrose should be a top contender in this one.

Clint Bowyer -
The No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team is rolling along well coming to Sonoma Raceway this weekend. Bowyer is fresh off a seventh-place performance at Michigan and he ranks a lofty third in the overall driver standings, so momentum is on his side. The Sonoma resume is short but skilled for Bowyer at this road circuit. He won this event one year ago and owns four Top 5s and five Top 10s in just seven career starts at this facility. The reigning Toyota/Save Mart 350 champion led 71 of 112 laps last season and totally dominated the day at the California road course. Considering the experience and momentum, things look very good for the No. 15 Toyota team this weekend at the Sonoma Raceway.

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

Kurt Busch -
A rebound performance will be in order for the No. 78 team after Busch's problems and bad finish at Michigan, but he's more than up to the task. The veteran driver is an excellent road course racer and his Sonoma stats back that up. Busch won this event two years ago and he's led 139 career circuits at the 10-turn California race track. His five Top-5 finishes work out to an impressive 42 percent Top-10 rate at Sonoma Raceway. Given the speed of their cars and the current momentum of the Furniture Row Racing team, Busch has great odds for a Top-10 finish and a possible outside shot at victory lane.

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 five starts at Sonoma Raceway since that victory have netted a pair of sixth-place and a 10th-place finish. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet has respectable road course skills. Montoya's dominant victory at Watkins Glen in 2010 is proof of that fact. Considering how the EGR star is performing, coming off the Top 15 at Pocono and Top 20 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 Sonoma 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 six consecutive Top-10 finishes here since that last win. The driver of the No. 24 Chevy qualified on the outside pole, led 13 laps and finished sixth one year ago at this 10-turn road course, so he is just one piece of the puzzle away from winning here again. Gordon has led 450 career laps at the Sonoma Raceway, so no driver on the track this Sunday knows this place better than him.

Greg Biffle -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran makes a surprisingly good start at Sonoma 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 four Top 10s in his last seven 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, coming off the Michigan win and Pocono runner-up finish, so a good effort should be in store for Sunday's road course race at Sonoma.

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

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is not a member of the winner's fraternity at Sonoma, but he's managed to improve his road racing skills gradually at this track over the years. It all culminated in a career-best third-place finish in this event in 2011. That effort was impressive and the third time in eight starts that Edwards cracked the Top 10 in the Toyota / Save Mart 350. The driver of the No. 99 Ford enters the weekend second in the championship standings, so there's a lot to lose or gain in this Sonoma race. Motivation shouldn't be a problem for Edwards, and if Jimmie Johnson were to stumble early that would only further motivate this driver and team.

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 has two Top 10s in his last three Sonoma races coming into this Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. Additionally, Harvick is a career 50 percent Top-10 finisher at the winding circuit in Watkins Glen. 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.

Joey Logano -
Logano is one of the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series entering this weekend's race in wine country. Over the last five races he's managed one Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes. That makes him the fourth-best point getter in the series, only trailing Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer during this span. Logano has a short but successful resume at the California road course. The Penske Racing driver has one pole position and two Top-10 finishes in four starts at Sonoma Raceway. That includes a 10th-place effort in this event one year ago. All things being equal we expect the young driver to stay on a roll this Sunday afternoon at the 10-turn road course.

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 late April at Richmond. Vickers shouldn't miss a beat despite the long layoff. He has two Top-10 finishes in just five starts already this season in the MWR Toyota. As far as Vickers Sonoma record is concerned, he owns one pole position, one Top-5 and four Top-20 finishes in his last five races at the 10-turn road course. Considering that Vickers posted the Top 5 in this event one year ago in his first Sonoma start with this team, we expect big things for this part-time driver on Sunday.

Jamie McMurray -
While not likely to grab a Top-10 finish, the veteran EGR driver McMurray will stay out of trouble on what has become a very rough race in recent seasons. The action at Sonoma can often look like short track racing with all the fender-beating and jockeying for position. McMurray seems immune to these hazards as shown by his steady 17.1 average finish at the track. He has one career pole position and three front row starting efforts in his Sonoma resume, so the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet puts the car up front to stay out of the fray. Nine of his 10 career starts at Sonoma Raceway have netted Top-20 finishes.

Casey Mears -
Mears and the No. 13 Germain Racing team have been performing well of late. They ride into wine country a respectable 25th in the series standings and on a four-race Top-25 streak entering the weekend. Mears has nine career starts at Sonoma Raceway, so he's quite familiar with the twists and turns of this road circuit. Two of those nine starts have netted Top-10 finishes, and he generally keeps the fenders on the car as his subtle 19.7 average finish and no DNFs at the track attests. Mears collected a respectable 15th-place finish in this race one year ago, so he should challenge that mark again.

David Gilliland -
Gilliland seems to respond like a lot of other drivers that are familiar with Sonoma 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 Top-20 finishes in two of the last three seasons at the 10-turn road course. The journeyman driver won a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at this track in 2007 and hammered out a brilliant runner-up finish in 2010 in this lower division of NASCAR. To say that Gilliland knows Sonoma Raceway like the back of his hand is no exaggeration.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star comes to Sonoma Raceway as a prime championship contender. So it probably comes as a surprise to see the downgrade to the sleepers list this week for the No. 20 Toyota team. 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 13 career starts he's managed one Top-10 finish and a lowly average finish of 20.8. 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 at Sonoma Raceway we have to give the temporary downgrade to Busch this week. Despite coming off the Top-5 finish at Michigan this past week, the JGR star is a shaky play on the Sonoma road course. He's collected a victory and two Top-10 finishes at the Sonoma circuit, but his other six starts at the facility have been completely forgettable. Busch's last four trips to the 10-turn track have netted only one Top-15 finish, and all this despite some good qualifying efforts. This facility for whatever reason just doesn't click with the driver of the No. 18 Toyota. It's peculiar because Busch is an incredibly good fantasy play at the Watkins Glen road course in New York.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The most popular driver in NASCAR lifted his spirits going to Michigan this past weekend, but only to have them dashed when his fast No. 88 Chevrolet erupted in smoke with a terminal engine failure. Things don't get any easier as the series heads to Sonoma. Earnhardt has been more of a “have not” at Sonoma Raceway than a driver who has enjoyed much success. In 13 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. However, reality suggests he'll slog out another Top-25 finish which is not what we're looking for with this driver and team.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin pulled a major disappearing act at Michigan International Speedway this past weekend. That concerns us greatly as we head to the climbing and twisting turns of Sonoma this week. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a questionable fantasy racing play at best in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. With seven career starts at the track he's only managed two Top-10 finishes despite having led 48 laps at the facility. Hamlin's last three Sonoma outings have netted 34th-, 37th- and 35th-place finishes. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement heading into this event.
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