Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Sonoma

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistJune 17, 2014

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Sonoma

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    NASCAR heads to Sonoma this weekend for the first road course race of the season in the Toyota Save Mart 350. Those twists and turns are fitting given the backdrop of Northern California's wine country. Such a refined setting for a NASCAR race. 

    Jimmie Johnson has come around, winning three of the last four races, including last week's race at Michigan. He said afterward, via Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer, “I think it is obvious that Hendrick Motorsports produces fast race cars. They build fast engines. It doesn’t matter if it is Stewart-Haas, or the Hendrick organization. We’re winning a lot of races and running up front.”

    Hendrick Motorsports has won five points races in a row, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon also getting in on the action over the past five weeks. The organization could keep it going at Sonoma, as Gordon has won at the track fives times and Johnson has won once. 

    After a bruising week at Michigan, NASCAR moves its trailers cross-country. Time to see what the storylines are heading into NorCal.

Can Harvick Stem the Frustrations?

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Kevin Harvick has been the MVP of the Stewart-Haas garage, and he's not too happy these days. He finished second at Michigan after having won the pole. After the race, he was in no mood to speak.

    "I mean, the car was fast, just wound up on the wrong side of all the strategy,” Harvick said after the race, via George Sipple and Mike Brudenell of the Detroit Free Press. “We finished second, and that’s it."

    Harvick out.

    He has two wins this year, good for second on the circuit, and two seconds in the last five weeks. Like Harvick said, he was on the wrong side of the strategy, despite having what others thought was the best car at Michigan. Per Sipple and Brudenell, Brad Keselowski said:

    I sympathize for the crew chiefs here. This is such a tough race to call strategy-wise, and you’re really at the mercy of the yellows at the end and where they fall. I think Kevin was probably the guy to beat today, and probably he feels that way too, I would imagine, and the way that yellow fell, it kind of completely killed him. But that’s just the way it is.

    Sonoma has been won by experienced drivers in the past, and Harvick is driving as well as anyone in the Sprint Cup these days. With two wins and two seconds, he is primed to quell some of his frustrations with strategy and travails in the pits.

Back to Back Again for Johnson?

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    Bob Brodbeck/Associated Press

    Jimmie Johnson took some time to get his No. 48 car in gear, and the results have been worth the wait. Ever since he took the Coca-Cola 600 to win his first race of the year, Johnson has been an unstoppable force on Sundays. He's won three of the last four races and now leads the Sprint Cup in trips to Victory Lane.

    Johnson won at Sonoma in 2010, so downshifting from the sweeping expanse of Michigan to the tight turns of Sonoma won't be an issue. Can he keep up this torrid pace? The short answer is yes, and his team is simply clicking of late.

    "We said coming into it that we thought it was going to be May time before we were able to hit our stride," crew chief Chad Knaus said, according to Noah Trister of The Associated Press (h/t Yahoo Sports). "I think that May showed up and we started to run a little bit better, and I hope that we can continue to improve."

    If Johnson wins again—what would be the second time he won back-to-back races in 2014—it would make another headline as well, this one for the guy on the next slide.

Hendrick Motorsports' Equally Hot Hand

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    Bob Brodbeck/Associated Press

    If Johnson is hot, then Rick Hendrick's garage must be summoning the fire from Hades itself. Hendrick is a veritable Dr. Faustus. Hendrick Motorsports has won five races in a row, and it will go for six at Sonoma. Other drivers have taken notice.

    "It's pretty obvious that the Hendrick engine are way ahead of everyone else," said Brad Keselowski, per Mike Griffith of "As far ahead as they are right now, they're probably a full season ahead of everyone.''

    For Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, that's the expectation every Sunday—to win. And a win in Sonoma would make Hendrick one happy pappy. Via Griffith, Knaus said:

    That is the expectation. We go to the race track every week with the hope and intent of winning the race. The reality is that's very difficult to achieve. When we don't run well, I can be grumpy, but that's the way it is. The expectation is for us to be able to perform on a weekly basis as the best team out there, and that's the expectation for all the fans. If we falter for two weeks, we're (supposedly) all washed up, and everyone is getting fired, so it's the only way to keep everyone in the media quiet.

    HMS has been silencing everyone. Johnson is now in second place in the Sprint Cup standings, just 15 points behind teammate Jeff Gordon.

Can Martin Truex Jr. Repeat at Sonoma?

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Martin Truex Jr. sits in 25th place in the Sprint Cup standings. He's also winless in 2014. He does have three top-10s to his credit, though, and he's the defending champion at this very track. That win snapped a 218-race losing skid. Said Truex, per the AP (h/t ESPN): 

    I was a freaking mess. It was terrible. I had to stop and start doing donuts because I couldn't think about what I was doing. I tried to key the radio once and I couldn't even talk. So I thought, 'OK, I'm going to do some donuts and wave to the fans.' But after I stopped the first time and did that, I calmed down a little bit and I just wanted to make sure I took my time coming back, because I remember at Dover it all happens way too fast. You never know when you're going to get that opportunity again.

    In 2013, Truex had one win, seven top-fives and 15 top-10s. This year hasn't been kind so far to Truex. Maybe returning to the site of a rare win is what he needs to jumpstart the remainder of 2014. 

Can Matt Kenseth Stop the Bleeding?

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Matt Kenseth still hasn't won a race in 2014, despite holding on to the fourth spot of the Sprint Cup standings. He's also tied for second with 10 top-10s. Even though he's been one of the most consistently good drivers, he's been slowly dropping down the standings.

    After the race at Dover, Kenseth briefly took the lead in the standings. Since then, however, he's slid down the list to where he now sits in fourth after Michigan. Johnson's ascension to the lead continues, while Kenseth desperately needs a win to reassert his presence at the top of the leaderboard.

    Still, he's been so steady that if he can pace the 20 car into the Chase, he could be ready to peak when it really matters.

Will Kyle Larson Break Though?

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    Kyle Larson had one of the more eventful afternoons of any driver at Michigan this past weekend. He spun out early in the race and came back from 35th to fourth at one point, ultimately finishing eighth in the race. He even got dinged for a speeding penalty in the pits. 

    "I didn't think you could pass this many cars at Michigan," said Larson, via Nate Ryan of USA Today. "We just fought hard all day long."

    Turns out that losing a part of his rear bumper helped him out. Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought Larson might have benefited from 20 extra pounds of rear downforce, according to Ryan. 

    Larson, the best rookie on the circuit, has three top-fives and seven-top 10s and sits eighth in the standings. It's just a matter of time before he gets that first win. The question is whether it will happen on the first road course race of the year.

    Still, the past few winners of this race have been experienced drivers, so it's hard to give the 21-year-old a big vote of confidence heading to Sonoma.

Kasey Kahne's Resurgence

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Kasey Kahne is the Danica Patrick of Hendrick Motorsports this year. His teammates—Gordon,  Johnson and Earnhardt Jr.—have a combined six wins in 17 races and are first, second and third in the Sprint Cup standings.

    Kahne, meanwhile, sits in 19th and has two top-fives and five top-10s. He got involved in a wreck with Larson at Michigan, and it appeared that Kahne was set for another unsettling day on the track. However, he rallied to finish fifth in the Quicken Loans 400, and that vaulted him from 21st to 19th in the standings.

    Following the race, Kahne said, per Bob Pockrass of Sporting News:

    We really needed that, especially where we started (with) getting in Larson's wreck there at the start of the race, we kind of got going from there. We made a lot of adjustments. It took about an hour and a half to get our car right with different adjustments and things. It was nice to get things going.

    Maybe Michigan was the spark he needed to keep pace with his teammates. 

    "(My critics) probably don’t all need to be silenced after one good run," Kahne said, via Pockrass. "We were way too bad the first 14 or 15 races and hopefully this will get us going and we can get strong from here and make some points up and get in the Chase. That’s all we can really shoot for at this point."

    Kahne won at Sonoma in 2009, and he needs to return to that form to turn his season around.