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I love this time of the year because it means NASCAR takes a trip into northern California’s wine country for its first road course race of the season.

It means the drivers and crews create a set-up to balance the car to also make right turns. In 34 of the 36 Cup Series races, the drivers basically run around in circles holding the steering to only make left turns. So grab some wine and cheese and let’s do some NASCAR, international style.

Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway’s 1.99-mile, 10-turn course will have a different feel to it because there are no more true road aces in the series. There are some pretty good road drivers, but it’s definitely flat and it’s a changing of an era. We no longer have Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya in the series and we saw the last of Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon last season who combined for 17 road course victories. Even the retired Carl Edwards had a road course win and was getting close to ace status.

What we’re left with now is a bunch of young guns with not a lot of experience on the roads. Kyle Busch has four road course wins, making him the active leader. No other driver has more than one win between Sonoma and Watkins Glen. That absolutely blows my mind.

I’m combining the two road courses as a reference to show just how much talent the series has lost over the past four seasons. But the reality is Sonoma and Watkins Glen are as different as Martinsville and Talladega are among the left-turn only tracks. Watkins Glen has long straights and is much faster while Sonoma is the more technical course with rolling hills and 160 feet of elevation changes. Edwards won the pole at both tracks last season and the speed disparities give a great example of the track differences. Sonoma’s pole speed was 95.7 mph while Watkins Glen was 126.5 mph.

Stewart won this race last season for the final win of his career and Kyle Busch won his second Sonoma race in 2015. In 2014 Edwards won this race, and he’s gone. Only six active drivers have ever won at Sonoma and I’m looking at two of those as top contenders and two of the older dogs in the series to try and get their first victory there. And three of those four drivers all come from Stewart Haas Racing.

Clint Bowyer, who took over Stewart’s car, won at Sonoma in 2012 and his 11.5 average finish over his career is the best among active drivers. Kevin Harvick has a career-best second-place at Sonoma in 2007, but has finished sixth and fourth in the past two races there. Kurt Busch won at Sonoma in 2011 and was second behind his brother in 2015.

I like those three guys to be the new guard in road racing and I also like Denny Hamlin, who burst onto the road scene loudly last year by finishing second to Stewart at Sonoma and winning at Watkins Glen. He actually had the Sonoma race won but blew it on the last turn. Hard to believe Joe Gibbs Racing hasn’t won through 15 races, but this might be the spot with Kyle Busch being the favorite to win.

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