Fantasy NASCAR Preview: Sonoma – Toyota / Save Mart 350
Well, we’re finally done with the re-pavements, but if you’re not a fan of fuel mileage races, don’t get too excited. As soon as the Toyota/Save Mart 350 starts on Sunday, teams will be working backwards with with mileage and getting off sequence to have just enough fuel in the end. The races at these road courses are interesting, but your fantasy team can go from very good to very bad quite quickly. Unless there is a big wreck, the caution flag won’t fly very often on Sunday, and if a driver ends up off-track, they will be last before they know it with no yellow to catch up.
I’m going to be doing things a little different this week when it comes to this article. Along with restrictor plate tracks, the road course races are sort of a “special” race in my mind where there are many unexpected drivers that can have a good run. When it comes to the road course “ringers,” though, I wouldn’t put much faith into them. Years ago, they were great picks in fantasy (especially in salary cap games) because they could run up front and get you a bunch points. However, the Cup “regulars” have really closed the gap and know how to get around all the turns almost as good as the “ringers”. Also, the latter tend to have sub-par equipment that can’t run as hard, and often end up breaking something on the car.
During The Last Race At Sonoma: Kurt Busch in his Double Deuce pretty much dominated, leading 76 of the 110 laps and grabbing his first win on either of the road courses. Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards followed Busch to the line with Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose rounding out the top 5. Joey Logano won the pole for last year’s race and led five laps en route to a 6th-place finish.
Practice Schedule: For those that play Yahoo! Auto Racing, we don’t get to see the cars on track at all before locking down this week. First practice and qualifying are both on Friday starting at 3:00 pm and 6:40 pm, respectively (ET). On Saturday, the drivers will get two more practice sessions, with the first one starting at 12:30 pm and then Happy Hour beginning at 1:45 pm. This year’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 is set to start around 3:45 pm on Sunday.
Ranking The Favorites For The Toyota / Save Mart 350:
1. Marcos Ambrose - I said before the season that Ambrose would be in the 2012 Chase and for that to happen he’s going to need to win this race. He finally broke through and got the win at Watkins Glen last year and it’s only a matter of time before he visits victory lane in wine country. Taking out his first start here (transmission problem), Marcos has never had a driver rating under 110.2 in his other three starts at Sonoma and has finished 6th or better in each. This team has just one finish worse than 14th in the last six Sprint Cup races this season, including the pole run and top 10 finish at Michigan last weekend. I think that momentum will carry over into us seeing the #9 in victory lane on Sunday.
2. Jimmie Johnson - Two weeks in a row starting in the back of the field and finishing top 5–seriously? Although it’s hard to say this because of who it is, the #48 team is RED HOT with four top 5s in the last five Sprint Cup races (including two wins). Not only that, but Johnson is a previous winner at Sonoma (2010) and is on a streak of three-straight finishes of 7th or better at this track. Five Time is one of those drivers that I mentioned earlier in this article who have really caught up with the road course ringers, and barring a mechanical issue or something he should be a threat in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
3. Tony Stewart - Brian Vickers probably won’t get into it with Smoke again at Sonoma (video from last year here), so it’s safe to say that the #14 should be a top 5 car at least this weekend. I’ve been saying for two weeks now that you have to take Stewart when he’s hot, and with two straight top 5s we are in prime position to pick him this weekend. The two-time Cup champion is also a two-time winner at Sonoma and has led at least one lap in six of the last seven events here. His career average finish of 11.5 at Sonoma is fourth-best in the series. Hopefully the suspected wrath of Junior Nation from his comments doesn’t affect Stewart too much this weekend (I don’t think it will).
4. Jeff Gordon - I honestly think that this could be viewed as a must-win race for Jeff Gordon and the #24 team this weekend. He’s going to need (I think, anyway) at least two wins to make the Chase this year and Sonoma is his best chance to get one of them. Gordon is a five-time winner at this race track and owns the best average finish in the series here with 8.7. He has led an impressive total of 437 laps in nineteen career starts hasn’t finished worse than 9th at this track since 2005. He’s hasn’t been trustworthy at all this season, but like Martinsville it’s hard to go against Jeff Gordon at Sonoma. Momentum-wise this team did get a solid 6th-place finish in Michigan last weekend…
5. Juan Montoya - JPM won in his first career start here but hasn’t finished inside the top 5 at all since (four races). Before his 22nd-place finish here last season, Montoya never finished outside of the top 10 at this track in four years. If I remember correctly, the #42 was a top 10 car in 2011 at Sonoma but may have gotten some payback late in the race and finished 22nd. I do remember that Juan was very aggressive throughout the entire 2011 Toyota/Save Mart 350. Anyway, he’ll be a favorite pick among many fantasy racers this weekend–and for good reason–but I’d keep your options open. This season hasn’t gone very well for the #42 team and if Montoya gets a little attitude on the track again, I’m sure there are many drivers that wouldn’t mind putting him in a gravel pit.
Those That Could Surprise And Get Their First Sonoma Victory?
Clint Bowyer - Question of the week: who has an average finish at Sonoma better than Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose, and Jimmie Johnson. If you guessed Clint Bowyer, you’re right, believe it or not. In six career starts at this track, Bowyer has posted three 4th-place finishes and owns an average finish of 11.2. He ended up 31st here in 2010 but other than that Clint’s worst finish has been 16th (in his first start). Michael Waltrip Racing is stronger than ever and Bowyer hasn’t finished worse than 13th in the last two months of Sprint Cup action. I really think he has the best shot of “non-winners” to end up in victory lane on Sunday.
A.J. Allmendinger - I had to rub my eyes last week when I saw Allmendinger’s name on the scroll inside the top 10. Of course, he finished 19th so I guess it wasn’t that surprising of a race out of The Dinger. This team has only one top 10 all season, and while I could see A.J. succeeding here at Sonoma, it’s hard to look past this team’s luck/errors/whatever else this season. In the last two Sonoma races, Allmendinger has finished 13th in each and those came after a solid 7th-place finish back in 2009. I think he’ll finish top 20 on Sunday but right now I’m not getting too excited with the Double Deuce. It could all change after practice, I suppose.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - No. Sorry, Junior Nation. As I said before, the “normal” drivers are really getting the hang of these tracks, and with the way Earnhardt’s season is going, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see him get his first career top 10 at Sonoma on Sunday. Although his average finish of 22.2 at this track is a bit scary, the fact that Junior has finished between 11th and 13th in three of last five races here is a little re-assuring for his fans. I wouldn’t use him in allocation games, but Earnhardt could be a good pick this weekend because most people are going to avoid him (as surprising as that is to say).
Ranking The “Not Ordinary” For The Toyota/Save Mart 350:
1. Brian Vickers - He’ll be back in the #55 Toyota this weekend and should have a bunch of speed again. Although most people only remember last year’s mess with Tony Stewart, I really think we could get a top 15 out of “The Sheriff” on Sunday, considering he finished 14th, 14th, and 16th in the three events he raced here before 2011. One of those races were with Hendrick Motorsports but the other two were with Red Bull, which is kind of surprising (to me, anyway). Vickers also just ran the 24 hours of Le Mans so he has a little recent experience turning left and right.
2. David Gilliland - I like this guy on the big restrictor plate tracks as a sleeper, and he’s also looking like a solid “out of the box” choice on the road courses as well. Gilliland finished 12th in this race last season and actually finished runner-up in the 2008 event at Sonoma (although that was while driving for Yates Racing). Believe it or not, Gilliland has a better average finish than Juan Montoya at this track over the past two years. Just sayin’…
3. Boris Said - He’s a road course ringer and has some awesome hair, but Boris Said is rarely a good fantasy pick when he races. He’s generally in sub-par equipment and racing with a sub-par pit crew, and will look real good in practice but rarely puts a full race together. Said has made twelve career starts at Sonoma in the Sprint Cup series and has recorded six finishes of 11th or better, the most recent coming in 2010 (an 8th-place effort). Now for the bad: Said has finished 24th or worse in three of his last four starts here. He’s capable of a good finish but it’s risky.
4. The Rest - This year’s roster of road course ringers is really week, to be honest with you. Robby Gordon? He’ll be lucky to finish the race. Tomy Drissi? Never heard of you. Brian Simo? He finished 10th here in 2005, but he was driving in a Richard Childress car and hasn’t finished better than 33rd in his four other starts here. And David Mayhew? Probably a start-and-park waiting to happen.
Those To Avoid For The Toyota/Save Mart 350:
Carl Edwards - Yes, Cousin Carl finished 3rd here last season, but that was 2011 Carl and this is 2012 Carl. Completely different. This team still isn’t on top of their game on the tracks that they’re supposed to really excel out, so why should we expect them to be good at the tracks where Roush really isn’t very good as a whole? Edwards has made seven career starts at this track and owns an average finish of 16.6 with three top 10s. The #99 team really needs a win or something to boost their spirits but it’s not happening this weekend.
Kyle Busch - Three blown engines in a row? That doesn’t even happen to the underfunded teams. That’s only part of the reason that I won’t be picking Rowdy this weekend, though. He actually does have a victory at Sonoma (in 2008) but other than that, Busch’s results here are really not that great. When you take out the win, Kyle’s average finish at this track plummets to 21.8. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the #18 challenge for a win on Sunday (when can you rule out Kyle Busch?) but I don’t see a reason to pick him this weekend.
Kasey Kahne - All of the sudden the #5 is looking like beginning of 2012 #5. Kahne does have a victory here at Sonoma (back in 2009) and he followed that up with a 4th-place outing in 2010, but Kasey’s other six starts have all ended with him in 20th place or worse. There are way too many other picks than Kahne this weekend, especially in allocation leagues. I won’t be picking him unless he wins the pole and looks unstoppable in practice, which I’ll put in the category of “unlikely to happen”.