NASCAR back on road at Sonoma Raceway

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The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action this week, heading west to the beautiful vineyards of Sonoma County in Northern California for the first of three road course races on the season.

Drivers will make both right and left turns for the first time in 2019 while the fans will get wine and charcuterie selections at the track for the first time in 2019.

The road race at Sonoma is probably my favorite race of the season just because it’s the most unique and it gives the drivers a chance to race as most do in other series around the world. It’s a challenge to the drivers because most of them grew up on ovals never making right turns. Most of them have had to learn road racing on the fly and some have become very good at it while others absolutely hate it, and it shows year after year with some of them.

The thing that makes Sonoma so unique is that the 12-turn course goes through 160 feet of elevation changes. It’s a technical course that doesn’t allow for many stretches where drivers can mash the pedal. They have to massage the course and set themselves up for proper entry into every turn so they can roll out of the exit as fast as possible. These big bulky cars bump and bang all the way through what is again a 2.52-mile course.

Sonoma Raceway celebrates its 50-year anniversary, so they’re going back to the old layout, rather than the 1.99-mile course NASCAR has used since 1998.

NASCAR at Sonoma doesn’t offer quite the same elegance as Formula One does at Monte Carlo, but it’s certainly the fanciest and most regal of all 36 races on the season. Las Vegas has most of the best restaurants, shows, and lodging on tour, but at Sonoma, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day.

Sonoma also offers some best vineyards and spas in the world. It’s also 40 miles east from Bodega Bay where Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” was filmed and an hour north of where Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” bullied crime in San Francisco and Steve McQueen gave the greatest car chase scene ever in “Bullitt.”

Yes, this is my favorite race of the year and the opinion is probably aided by the fact that it’s my favorite area in the world. I’ve always said I’m going back to live there but never have. So I’ll just visit a few times a year, catch a race and a Giants game, have some wine and a steak at the Maltese Falcon (John’s Grill) and enjoy clean air off the ocean the way air was meant to be breathed.

O.K., so let’s make some money. Sonoma is expensive and a win this week would be nice. The odds on the favorites will be lower than usual because we can cut out more drivers as candidates to win than usual. They’ll be using the race package with no aero ducts and engines that produce 750 horsepower which is very similar to what they used at Sonoma last season.

There’s not a lot of what we’ve seen this season that can help us out at Sonoma other than Martin Truex Jr winning the last two races using this package (Richmond, Dover). And, oh yeah, Truex won this race last season for his second Sonoma Cup win. Truex is the second favorite to at 9-2 odds according to odds at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

The 7-2 favorite this week is Kevin Harvick who won his first Cup race at Sonoma in 2017, but the Bakersfield native has been figuring out the course for his entire racing career. In 1998, he won at Sonoma in the Winston West Series and he won in that series again in 2017 just before winning his Cup race. His last four Cup starts at Sonoma have seen him finish fourth, sixth, first and second last season. He doesn’t have a win this season, but this is probably his best shot of getting him and his Stewart-Haas Racing team one.

Harvick’s SHR teammate Clint Bowyer should also be right there looking for his first win of the season and comes in at 6-1 odds to win. He won at Sonoma in 2012 and was third last season and runner-up in 2017. His 10th-place average finish in 13 starts is the best among active drivers.

The best value on the board might be another SHR driver with Daniel Suarez, who unlike most other Cup drivers grew up racing on road courses in Karting. His skills in Karting is how he got discovered while racing in Mexico. This will be his first race for SHR on a road course after finishing 15th and 16th at Sonoma in his first two attempts while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. 

Current JGR driver Kyle Buch leads the series with four wins on the season and he’s a two-time winner at Sonoma, the last coming in 2015. He’s finished fifth the past two season there. He’s tied with Truex as the active leader in wins at Sonoma.

The reason we don’t have many winners active is that road aces like Jeff Gordon (five wins) and Tony Stewart (three wins) have retired, along with road specialists like Robby Gordon (2003 win), Juan Pablo Montoya (2007) and Marcos Ambrose. All those drivers were great on the roads every time because of their early beginnings racing on them. It was easy for them and the others were not as skilled.

It’s still somewhat the same these days, it’s just that we don’t as many who have high-end road skills.

A driver who has turned out to be a fantastic road racer is 2011 Sonoma winner Kurt Busch who has been knocking on the door for a win all season. He was runner-up at Bristol using this package and he comes in finishing 12th or better in his last 13 races on road courses. He was sixth last season using the car Suarez is driving now.

Denny Hamlin has turned himself into quite the road racer in the later stages of his career after struggling mightily early on them. He’s led races in his past three starts at Sonoma and the last turn wiggle in 2016 cost him a win as Stewart passed him. He finished second in that race, and since then he’s actually dominated in road races winning the same season at Watkins Glen at 40-1 odds. The worst finish in his last seven road races has been 13th. He presents nice value at 14-1 odds.

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