After 15 weeks of running in circles with only left turns, the NASCAR Sprint Cup series gets to turn right this week at Sonoma’s 1.99-mile 10-turn road course, a track that highlights a drivers true ability to drive race cars.
Because some drivers are less skilled at driving on road courses, there isn’t as much excitement about them when they visit one of the two road circuits on the schedule.
It even gets so bad for a few of them that car owners hire a road specialist for a race to drive their cars. Although the hired guns have never won a Cup race before, they usually run well and take a car that would have been doomed to a 30th-place finish or worse into a respectable finish position.
From a fan’s perspective, some of the greatest racing of the season occurs when watching these hired guns, with all kinds of skill on their playground, mix it up with the regulars.
From a betting perspective, you can narrow down the list of candidates to win at about 10 drivers, or just under 25 percent of the entire field. On a normal race weekend, there are about 18 legitimate candidates, but the road course is the variable that really puts a major gap between those contenders.
The top candidate to win this week is Marcos Ambrose. Although he has never won at Sonoma, he has captured the past two races at Watkins Glen. The two road courses are about as different as they can get with Sonoma being more technical featuring elevation changes while Watkins Glen runs much faster.
Ambrose has finished eighth or better in his last four starts at Sonoma. His skills on the road come from the Australia V8 Super Series, which is much tougher than anything seen in NASCAR. To him, these races have become rather simple. His two road-course wins are the only two wins he’s had in NASCAR.
The same can be said for Juan Pablo Montoya, who has yet to win on any track other than a road course. He won at Sonoma in 2007 during his rookie season, and then won at Watkins Glen in 2010. Montoya’s chances of winning become even stronger this week due to the upgrade in the entire program over the past two months.
Montoya’s skills on the road courses have never been questioned over his illustrious career. Not many drivers can say they have won the Monaco Grand Prix, especially those driving in NASCAR.
Because of their past excellence in other series, Ambrose and Montoya stand alone as the most technical road racers, but a few Cup drivers who have success on the ovals have also found the roads to be to their liking.
Jeff Gordon is a five-time winner at Sonoma, which is the closest track located to his birth-place in Vallejo, California. He hasn’t won these since 2006, but hasn’t finished worse than ninth in his last six starts there.
Tony Stewart took over the road racing crown from Gordon for a while between events at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, but he captured the last of his two Sonoma victories in 2005. He’s been runner-up twice since then, including last year.
The most interesting choice this week is Kurt Busch because of how fast he’s been everywhere this season. His outstanding practice times haven’t translated into good finishes the past few weeks, but we should expect a great run on Sunday.
Kurt won at Sonoma while driving for Penske Racing in 2011, and then came in third last season while driving for his current underfunded No. 78 program. He’s always been good at Sonoma and should be considered one of the favorites.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].