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NASCAR at Sonoma 2014: Complete Preview and Prediction for Save Mart 350

Lindsay GibbsFeatured ColumnistJune 19, 2014

NASCAR at Sonoma 2014: Complete Preview and Prediction for Save Mart 350

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    USA TODAY Sports

    If you're looking for something different in NASCAR, the Save Mart 350 at Sonoma is the race for you. Sonoma is one of only two NASCAR Sprint Cup races on a road course. With 12 turns and frequent hills, it's a different test for drivers. 

    Located in California wine country, this race tends to favor the veteran drivers who have had more time to get used to road courses in their career.

    This year, points leader Jeff Gordon will be trying to win a record sixth title at Sonoma. Other former champions—including Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.—will try to beat No. 24 to the finish line.

    Here's everything you need to know about the ups, downs, twists and turns coming up in Sonoma.

By the Numbers: Sonoma Raceway

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Place: Sonoma Raceway

    Date: Sunday, June 22

    Time: 3 p.m. ET

    TV: TNT, 2 p.m. ET (Countdown to Green pre-race show)

    Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN), SiriusXM Ch. 90

    Distance: 219 miles (110 laps

    Defending Race Winner: Martin Truex Jr. 

    Defending Pole Winner: Jamie McMurray

    Race Record: Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 83.624 mph, 06-24-12

    Qualifying Record: Marcos Ambrose, Ford, 95.262 mph, 06-22-12

    Races Won from the Pole: Five

    Last Race Won from the Pole: Jeff Gordon (2004)

    Youngest Sonoma Pole Winner: Joey Logano (06/26/2011—21 years, 1 month, 2 days)

    Oldest Sonoma Pole Winner: Rusty Wallace (06/25/2000—43 years, 10 months, 11 days)

    Youngest Sonoma Winner: Kyle Busch (06/22/2008—23 years, 1 month, 20 days)

    Oldest Sonoma Winner: Ricky Rudd (06/23/2002—45 years, 9 months, 11 days)

    All-Time Winner: Jeff Gordon (five)

Key Storylines

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Can Hendrick Motorsports Keep Its Streak Going?

    Hendrick Motorsports drivers have won the last five races on the Sprint Cup schedule, and after last week's race, Nate Ryan of USA Today wrote, "Hendrick Motorsports seemed miles ahead of the competition Sunday at Michigan International Speedway."

    The team will come to Sonoma looking to keep that winning feeling alive. The in-house engine program at Hendrick has given the team the horsepower advantage, but the road course at Sonoma is more about skill than speed.

    However, Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson is on a hot streak, having won three of the last four races, including last week's race in Michigan. Johnson wasn't great at road courses early in his career, but he has had a lot more success recently, finishing in the top 10 at Sonoma for the last five years, including a win in 2010. 

    The best bet from Hendrick is Jeff Gordon, who currently leads the Sprint Cup standings. He is the most successful driver in the history of the Sonoma Raceway, with five wins. 

     

    Can an Inexperienced Driver Break Through?

    Road courses tend to favor experienced drivers, and Sonoma is no different. It's been five years since someone in his 20s won the Save Mart 350, and that was 29-year-old Kasey Kahne back in 2009. 

    This year, 2013 Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson will be looking to finally drive into Victory Lane. Larson is eighth in the standings and has three top-five finishes and seven top-10s this year. The 21-year-old is the best candidate for stopping the trend of veteran winners at Sonoma.

     

    Can a Past Champion Repeat?

    From 1998 to 2006, Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart won seven of the nine races at Sonoma. Since 2007, there have been different winners each year. As mentioned above, Gordon has five wins at  Sonoma but none since 2006. He's having a great season so far and will try to get back to the winner's circle on Sunday. 

    Stewart will be looking to win his third title, while Martin Truex Jr. will be seeking to defend his win from last year. Other past champions in the field include Johnson, Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch.

Drivers to Watch

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson

    Johnson had a slow start to 2014, failing to win any race until last month at the Coca-Cola 600.

    But since the floodgates have opened, Johnson has been on fire. He's won three of his last four races and finished in the top 10 in his past five.

    He's already up to No. 2 in the Sprint Cup standings and is nipping at his teammate Jeff Gordon's heels. Johnson won at Sonoma in 2010, but road courses aren't his specialty. Still, never count him out.

     

    Kurt Busch

    Busch has finished in the top five at Sonoma for the past three years, winning the race in 2011.

    Now with Stewart-Haas racing, the 35-year-old is currently No. 26 in the standings, winning in Martinsville for the first time since 2002 and finishing third earlier this month at the Pocono 400.

    His recent success at Sonoma means he's one to look out for.

     

    Tony Stewart 

    Stewart has two wins at Sonoma, in 2001 and 2005, and has seven top-10 finishes at the course in his career.

    He only has two top-five finishes and no victories this season, but with seven road-course wins in his career, the 43-year-old should definitely be viewed as a contender on this tricky track. 

History of Sonoma Raceway

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Opened in 1968, the Sonoma Raceway is a 2.52-mile road course and drag strip located about 30 miles north of San Francisco. Formerly known as Sears Point Raceway, it was built on 720 acres of land that used to belong to a dairy farm

    The road course features 12 turns and extreme hills, with 160 feet of total elevation change throughout. It is one of only two NASCAR Sprint Cup races that is held on a road course.

    Ricky Rudd won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the track back in 1989. Then, the race was 300 kilometers, but it was lengthened to 350 kilometers in 1998. 

    Gordon holds many course records, including the most wins (five) and consecutive wins (three). His start at Sonoma this weekend will be his 22nd at the course, which will be a course record, according to the Miami Herald. He's currently tied at 21 starts with Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte and Mark Martin, but they aren't racing this weekend.

Favorites

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Marcos Ambrose

    Despite all of the focus on Hendrick Motorsports this week, Ambrose is the odds-on favorite to win this race.

    The 37-year-old is one of the best road-course drivers in the Sprint Cup series, with five top-eight finishes at Sonoma and two wins at the other NASCAR road course, Watkins Glen. 

     

    Jeff Gordon 

    Gordon's form this season and his historical success at Sonoma cannot be overlooked.

    The 24 is a big threat to win his sixth race at Sonoma, which would be his first since 2006. The 42-year-old Sprint Cup points leader has recently added a new primary sponsor and shows no signs of slowing down. 

     

    Kevin Harvick

    Harvick won at Watkins Glen in 2006 and has had good career results at Sonoma. He's finished in the top 10 three out of the past four years and was the runner-up in 2006.

    The 38-year-old was incredibly frustrated with himself after winning the pole in Michigan and yet finishing in second place, so he will surely be a man on a mission this weekend in California. 

Dark-Horse Pick

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Clint Bowyer is a little bit under the radar right now, with no wins since 2012 and only two top-five finishes this season. But don't count him out at Sonoma.

    Bowyer has had a lot of triumphs at this race in the past, finishing in the top five for the last three years and winning in 2012. His average finish at the race is 9.1, which is only bested by Gordon's 8.2.

    According to Paddock Talk, the 35-year-old feels like his season is headed in the right direction as he heads to California:

    The good news is that here lately we’ve really kind of got our feet back underneath us and got some consistency back. Really honed in on a ‘B’ right now. Got some room to improve, which is always good. More importantly, just like the direction that we’re headed. We finally got our feet underneath us and hit our stride. That’s good because we’re out of mulligan’s.

Qualifying Recap

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Jamie McMurray will sit on the pole for the Save Mart 350 for the second straight year after winning qualifying Saturday morning at Sonoma Raceway.

    McMurray, who set the course record with a speed of 76.350 miles per hour, made his one and only run in the final qualifying session in the last minutes of the 10-minute round. He'll be looking for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory since last October at Talladega.

    Finishing in second place was AJ Allmendinger, who is still seeking his first-ever race victory, while third place went to Kyle Larson. McMurray and Larson give the Chip Ganassi team two of the top three drivers heading into Sunday's 3 p.m. ET race.

    All 43 drivers began in the first 30-minute qualifying session, but only 12 moved on to take another shot at the 1.99-mile road course. Team Hendricks, which has been dominating the circuit the last few weeks, failed to send any drivers into the finals.

    Marcos Ambrose and Jeff Gordon, two of the most accomplished road-course drivers in the field, both failed to make the final 12.

     

    ---Update by Brian Pedersen---

Prediction

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    As tempting as it is to choose Jeff Gordon based on his career success at Sonoma, or Jimmie Johnson because he's won three of the last four races, I'm going with the oddsmakers on this one and picking Marcos Ambrose.

    Ambrose is right at home on the road courses, and considering he currently sits 23rd in the Sprint Cup standings, he knows that he needs to win Sonoma if he wants to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    Since the 37-year-old's contract with Richard Petty Motorsports is up at the end of the year and he has never qualified for the Chase before, Ambrose will have no lack of motivation.

    Jerry Bonkowski of NBC Sports reports that Ambrose has prepared well and is focused in on this road course:

    We know that the race here this weekend and in Watkins Glen, the two road races, are our best chance to win a race this year. That will automatically lock us into the Chase. Clearly there’s a lot to race for at these two tracks for us.

    We’ve put a lot of energy and effort into Sonoma. We went out there and did the Goodyear tire test earlier in the season. We’ve done some road course testing as well, so we feel we’re as ready as we can be.

    So while NASCAR's more high-profile drivers will try to keep Ambrose from celebrating, look for Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 9 car to cruise to victory.

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