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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 leave the ovals behind and head to the twisting turns this weekend as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will make its first stop on the road course. Sonoma Raceway in California plays host to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 this Sunday afternoon. As we leave the oval tracks in the rearview mirror, crew chiefs will be left scrambling to dust off the road course playbooks for this event. Sonoma 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. One lap around Sonoma incurs a 160-foot 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 few 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 most the Sprint Cup regulars in the field.

Since this is the first of two road course events in the Sprint Cup Series 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 nine years or nine races at Sonoma Raceway.

Marcos Ambrose11.82075864544108.0
Kurt Busch13.020156123761107.8
Tony Stewart13.92617962740102.4
Jeff Gordon7.62306493666101.6
Jimmie Johnson11.6240528571797.3
Juan Pablo Montoya16.123126960795.5
Clint Bowyer9.1216357351395.2
Kyle Busch20.4149508851888.0
Ryan Newman14.3185151157288.0
Carl Edwards15.6196271454486.8
Martin Truex Jr.19.1165426744986.5
Kasey Kahne19.2210324155284.3
Jamie McMurray19.3111163243383.5
Kevin Harvick17.8174201056582.7
Greg Biffle11.91698951582.4
Joey Logano15.89871529980.1
Denny Hamlin22.9147304828678.9
Jeff Burton19.714114046178.6
Brad Keselowski19.5978724277.8
A.J. Allmendinger15.81208021677.6

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 have stepped in and taken over the reigns at the California road course the last seven years. Young stars like Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. have dethroned the old NASCAR guard at Sonoma, so this race is more unpredictable than ever. Last season saw young Michael Waltrip Racing driver, Truex Jr., turn in a dominant road course performance and capture his first career victory at Sonoma Raceway. In 2012, it was his MWR teammate, Bowyer, pulling an equally impressive performance and taking his first career win at Sonoma. The one name that remains winless at this facility, but would be in line to keep this theme of first-time winners going, would be Marcos Ambrose. The Richard Petty Motorsports veteran has been painfully close to winning the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in the past, but circumstances have not played out in his favor. With over 60 laps led and a pair of Top-5 finishes in the last six races at this track, the Ambrose-watch must be in full swing this weekend. 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 Jeff Gordon 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 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 five 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 sat on the outside pole, led 18 laps and fell to seventh-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 10th-place performance at Michigan and his team is getting better each week. The Sonoma resume is short but impressive for Bowyer at this road circuit. He won this event two years ago and owns five Top 5s and six Top 10s in just eight career starts at this facility. The veteran driver qualified and finished fifth in this event one year ago, in a defense of his race win. Considering the experience and momentum, things look very good for the No. 15 Toyota team this weekend at the Sonoma Raceway.

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 six-time Sprint Cup Series champion currently has a five-race Top-10 streak in tow at Sonoma, including a ninth-place finish in this race one year ago. Johnson's 58-percent Top-10 rate at this winding course ranks among the very best in the Sprint Cup Series. Considering that he's won three of the last four races entering this weekend, we expect Johnson to be good, and possibly great in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Kurt Busch -
It's taken a third of the season, but the new SHR No. 41 team is finally getting into shape. Busch led 16 laps at Michigan this past weekend and spent a good deal of that racing running in the Top 10. The veteran driver is an excellent road course racer and his Sonoma stats back that up. Busch won this event three years ago and he's led 154 career circuits at the 10-turn California race track. His six career Top-5 finishes work out to an impressive 46-percent Top-5 rate at Sonoma Raceway. Busch should be the sucker punch that most don't see coming, kind of like his surprise win earlier this year at Martinsville.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick doesn't have the career statistics to inspire major 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. 4 Chevrolet has three Top 10s in his last four Sonoma races coming into this Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. Additionally, Harvick is a career 46-percent Top-10 finisher at the winding circuit in Watkins Glen. It's clear that the SHR star has the tools to succeed on these unique circuits. There may be no better “outside” contender play this week than the Stewart Haas Racing veteran.

Joey Logano -
Logano is one of the more consistent drivers in the Sprint Cup Series entering this weekend's race in wine country. Over the last five races he's managed 92 laps led and three Top-10 finishes. That makes him one of the top point-getters 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 his last three trips to Sonoma Raceway. That includes a steady 11th-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.

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 seven consecutive Top-10 finishes here since that last win. The driver of the No. 24 Chevy qualified 10th on the starting grid, led 4 laps and finished runner-up to Martin Truex Jr. 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 454 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 fantasy racing 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 three Top 10s in his last four trips to the California road course. Biffle is slumping a bit as the series heads west to Sonoma this weekend, but this track has been a very dependable facility for the veteran driver in recent seasons. Nothing like a good bit of road course racing to help Biffle shake off his current slump on the ovals.

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 pair of third-place finishes at this track in the last three seasons. Those efforts were impressive and the fourth time in nine starts that Edwards cracked the Top 10 in the Toyota / Save Mart 350. The driver of the No. 99 Ford enters the weekend sixth 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.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart is a two-time winner at Sonoma Raceway and has a stellar average finish position of 12.0 in 15 career races at the facility. He comes to the road course this weekend in the middle of a lull in performance with only one Top 10 in his last seven races. But the friendly confines of Sonoma Raceway should get this veteran driver going this Sunday afternoon. Stewart has cracked the Top 10 in five of his last seven 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 could be in store.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The defending race champion comes back to the scene of his surprising victory in the 2013 Toyota/Save Mart 350, but with a new race team in tow. Truex will pilot the No. 78 Chevrolet of Furniture Row Racing in this Sunday's 350k event. The veteran driver had a pretty good Sonoma resume even before his big win at the road course last year. Truex has 66 laps led and two Top-10 finishes in his last three starts at the 10-turn road course. The team switch shouldn't be of much concern. Remember, it was this same FRR team that helped Kurt Busch to a Top-5 finish in last year's Sonoma race. While a win isn't likely, a good Top-10 finish is very likely.

Brian Vickers -
The No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing team should have a good weekend in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The team comes off a disappointing finish at Michigan and should be plenty motivated for the first road course race of 2014. As far as Vickers Sonoma record is concerned, he owns one pole position, one Top-5 and three Top-20 finishes in his last four races at the 10-turn road course. Considering that Vickers posted a Top 15 in this event a year ago, and MWR's incredible success in this race the last two years, a great effort is not just possible it's expected.

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 17.8 average finish at the track. He has two-career pole positions and four 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 trouble. Nine of his 11 career starts at Sonoma Raceway have netted Top-20 finishes.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The California native will gladly have a homecoming this weekend at Sonoma Raceway. Allmendinger has been battling some performance issues of late. He's a veteran of many road course races and has competed at Sonoma in more than one racing series. As his two Nationwide Series wins in 2013 on the road course circuit showed, Allmendinger possesses incredible road racing skills. The JTG/Daugherty Racing driver has two Top 10 and four Top 15s in his five career starts at this facility. His 15.8 average finish at Sonoma Raceway ranks him among the Top 10 active drivers in the Sprint Cup Series.

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 four 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.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

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 avoid 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 14 career starts he's managed one Top-10 finish and a lowly average finish of 20.7. 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. Coming off a poor 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 seven starts at the facility have been completely forgettable. Busch's last five trips to the 10-turn track have netted only one Top-15 finish, and all this despite some good qualifying efforts. This track 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 racing 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 with the big Pocono victory. He followed up with a Top-10 finish at the Michigan oval. Things won't likely be as easy this week 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 14 career starts he's never cracked the Top 10, although he has been painfully close with three 11th-place, two 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 eight career starts at the track he's only managed two Top-10 finishes despite having led 48 laps at the facility. Hamlin's last four Sonoma outings have netted 34th-, 37th-, 35th- and 23rd-place finishes. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement heading into this 350k road racing event.