After a much needed weekend off for the NASCAR Cup Series, the drivers, teams, and fans come in refreshed this week for the 16th race of the season, which hopefully will be sort of a reboot from the predictable happenings in the first 15 races. It’s road course racing at Sonoma Raceway where drivers have to turn left and also right, a beautiful change of pace from the constant left turns. So grab your wine and cheese, and let’s go racing.
This season we get a bit of a change where we’ll be seeing races on three road courses or at least kind of. We’ll get the traditional two road courses we’re used to with the Watkins Glen race happening Aug. 5, but during the Playoffs we get a new deal with Charlotte Motor Speedway using its infield road course and part of the oval banking and calling it a “roval.” It’s supposed to be the best of both worlds with the required technical aspects of the road courses mixed in with the speed of an oval.
We’ll see how the Charlotte thing turns out, but I’ll go ahead and say now that Sonoma is still my favorite of the courses because it’s a more technical course with elevation changes that really test the drivers’ ability in ways either of the other road courses don’t. Watkins Glen is a much faster track with longer straightaways. Plus, Sonoma just signifies a change in the season.
Although Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick have combined to win 11 of the 15 races this season and all three have won at Sonoma in the past, this race also signifies the best chance for a non-elite driver to win since Joey Logano won at Talladega or Clint Bowyer won at Martinsville. There are a few road aces we don’t talk about often as candidates to win, but we have to now because while they may not have the fastest car, their skills getting in and out of the turn make up for having a slower car. The driver means more in these road races than any other type of track.
We’ve seen a different driver win at Sonoma the past nine seasons with the last multiple winner being Kyle Busch, who won in 2008 and 2015. Here’s a look at a couple drivers to keep the streak going to 10 straight years.
Denny Hamlin: He’s the only driver in the series to have finished in the top-five of his last four road races the past two seasons, which includes a 2016 Watkins Glen win. He’s developed into a really good road racer and his cars have been set-up perfect the last two years. In 2016 he led 33 laps and was on his way to winning his first Sonoma race but erred on his last turn and Tony Stewart took advantage and won what would be the final race of his career.
A.J. Allmendinger: He’s probably the most excited to be on a road course just because he becomes relevant again. He’s got two whacks to make the playoffs, Sonoma and Watkins Glen, and he knows it. His car is a jalopy on ovals but he turns into speed racer on the roads. His only career Cup win came at Watkins Glen in 2015.
Kurt Busch: He has to wonder when it is his turn to win within his own team as Harvick has five wins and Bowyer has two, but this might be his spot. He won at Sonoma in 2011 and he’s been 12th or better in his past 10 road races. He’s turned himself into a great road racer.
Daniel Suarez: He’s been at his best throughout his entire racing career on the road courses and when he got his first whack at it last season as a rookie he finished 16th at Sonoma and third at Watkins Glen where he led 14 laps. This is a driver that may present the best value due to having a solid set-up as Kyle Busch and Hamlin’s teammate coupled with odds many sportsbooks may simply throw out there like they normally do with him in the 40-1 range. Shop around, take a shot.
Now, just as I mention those names I also have to be truthful and disclose that last year’s two road course winners were Harvick at Sonoma and Truex at Watkins Glen. Also, Bowyer has seven top-five’s at Sonoma in 12 starts, which includes a 2012 win. He was runner-up at Sonoma last year.