Welcome to the first road course race of the NASCAR summer season.
Ironically enough, even after five straight weeks of victories for Hendrick Motorsports, the team has two drivers with the potential to win at Sonoma. One of those racers might even have a chance to go back-to-back for the second time this season.
The early part of the season saw several teams rise to the occasion, but it's all about stopping the Hendrick hammer at this point. With Martin Truex Jr. winning last season and Matt Kenseth still searching for his first win, both come in as contenders to dethrone the team.
With the Sprint Cup season continuing on Sunday afternoon, here's a look at the latest team news, drivers to watch and schedule for the Toyota-Save Mart 350.
Toyota-Save Mart 350
Site: Sonoma Raceway, Sonoma, California
Date: Sunday, June 22
Start Time: 3 p.m. ET
Live Stream: TNTDrama.com
Latest Team News
Though it might not necessarily be team news, one man that affected several teams throughout his tenure in NASCAR was Ray Fox.
The 98-year-old Hall of Fame nominee passed away on Sunday of pneumonia. After a long career as a driver, owner and engine builder, Fox also served as an engine inspector for NASCAR from 1990 through 1996.
NASCAR released a statement following the news of Fox's passing:
Ray Fox was one of the individuals who helped form the foundation of our sport, with a personality that was every bit as important as his on-track accomplishments.
His place in our record book is secure, but no one should ever view Ray Fox solely in terms of statistics. A resident of Daytona Beach, Florida, he was a hometown hero of sorts, serving as an ambassador for NASCAR in the community where the sport began. Most importantly, he was a friend to us all.
One team that has dominant engines lately is clearly Hendrick. The now six-time winning team has not been surpassed in five straight weekends and supplied engines for another three victories in Sprint Cup for Stewart-Haas Racing.
While the rule for Hendrick is clear right now, Tom Jensen of Fox Sports points out that the streak might not turn into a championship for the team:
Two years ago, Hendrick Motorsports won five of eight races between the first Dover race and the second Pocono, with all four Hendrick drivers finding victory lane. But it was Brad Keselowski who took the 2012 championship with Clint Bowyer second.
Last year, JGR won four of six from Las Vegas to Kansas early in the season, then won five of seven from Watkins Glen to New Hampshire, with Kenseth winning each of the first two Chase races. But he didn't win the championship. …
Teams go on hot and cold streaks all the time in NASCAR. Rarely do those streaks, especially the hot ones, last for an extended period of time.
What that full passage means is that it might not be smooth sailing for the Hendrick team when the Chase for the Sprint Cup rolls around.
Groups like Team Penske and Stewart-Haas possess drivers who have been strong this season and have plenty left in the tank. As for teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing, both should hit their stride as NASCAR's postseason nears.
Drivers to Watch
Three out of four isn't half bad.
That's what the No. 48 crew has done in the last four races this season. After back-to-back victories at Charlotte and Dover to finally capture his first and second of the year, Johnson now sits alone in the Chase Grid as the only driver with three wins.
While Johnson has won at nearly every track in his illustrious career, Mr. Six-Time had never taken a checkered flag at Michigan International Speedway, as NASCAR notes:
Heading to Sonoma, he returns to a track in which he's visited Victory Lane. The road course sits in J.J.'s home state of California, a place were he hasn't fallen below 10th in the last five races.
If Johnson can make his way to clean air yet again in Sonoma, he might just pull off his second victory at the track. Regardless, the 2013 points champion will contend for a top-five finish, something he's done four times in his career.
It doesn't matter who Clint Bowyer is driving for, he's been one of the most consistent drivers at Sonoma during his Sprint Cup career.
Now with Michael Waltrip Racing for his last two starts at the track, he has an average finish of third and a win on his record. Bowyer has raced just eight times at the track but currently holds the second-best average finish, as Dustin Long of Motor Racing Network notes:
Outside of one poor showing back in 2010 where Bowyer finished 31st, he has never finished outside of the top 10. If the MWR driver can qualify up near the front, he will have a car to contend with at Sonoma throughout the race.
With a win, Bowyer would essentially secure himself a spot in the Chase at the end of the season over several other deserving drivers. Currently sitting 14th in points and 15th in the Chase Grid, the time is now for Bowyer to take his first checkered flag.
Remember that average finish statistic from Long? Yeah, the guy at the top of that list is still a pretty strong contender as well.
Gordon already has a win on the season and sits atop the traditional points standings but heads to a track where he's ruled with a rainbow fist. The No. 24 machine has finished first at Sonoma five times, more than any other on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Much like Bowyer, Gordon has a few results that have gone badly. But in his last 19 starts at the track, Gordon has 17 top-10 finishes, and 13 of those have been inside the top five.
With a much larger sample size than any other driver, Gordon has always fared well at the road course. In search of his second victory of the season, look for Gordon to work hard to secure it on Sunday.
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