While it is true that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is usually all about speed, that will take a backseat to precision this week, when the best drivers in the world converge on Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California.
Sonoma is one of two road courses on the Sprint Cup slate, and it is a major departure from what drivers are used to. Pinpoint turns and constant concentration are paramount on a road course since one minor slip-up can ruin an entire day.
Some drivers love the strategy involved with road courses, though, and this could provide them with their best chance to win a race and qualify for the Chase. That factor figures to make the Toyota/Save Mart 350 even more intriguing than it has been in past years.
Here is everything you need to know about when and where to catch all of the wild road-course action this weekend from Sonoma Raceway.
Where: Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California
When: Sunday, June 22 at 3 p.m. ET
Live Steam: TNTDrama.com
Radio: Performance Racing Network
Toyota/Save Mart 350 qualifying will take place on Saturday, June 21 at 1:40 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1, per NASCAR.com.
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||17|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88|
|Martin Truex Jr.||78|
Drivers to Watch
With a win to his credit and a spot atop the Sprint Cup standings, Jeff Gordon has to be feeling pretty good about his status as the Chase for the Sprint Cup draws closer. After watching Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson win three out of the past four races, however, there is little doubt that Gordon would love to solidify himself as a potential title contender with another win.
Gordon has had success at almost every track on the Sprint Cup circuit, but Sonoma has been particularly kind to him. With five wins, 13 top-fives and 17 top-10 finishes in 21 races at Sonoma, Gordon is essentially always near the front of the field. Since only one other active driver, Tony Stewart (who won in 2001 and 2005), has won more than once at Sonoma, the No. 24 team has to be considered the odds-on favorite.
One potential area of concern relates to Gordon's back, which has hampered him at various points throughout the season. One might assume that a road course would be tough on a driver's back due to the constant changes in direction, but Gordon downplayed it, according to Bob Pockrass of Sporting News:
Jeff Gordon tells reporters at Sonoma that plane flight harder on his back than the shifting and practice today at Sonoma. #nascar— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) June 20, 2014
Gordon is almost incapable of having a bad run at Sonoma, so it essentially comes down to him executing and staying out of any type of trouble that might occur around him on the track. If he does that, then it is a near certainty that he'll be in position to potentially win this race late.
Based on how consistent Gordon has been all season long, betting against him at Sonoma may not be a particularly good idea.
Sitting 14th in the Sprint Cup standings, there is no question that Clint Bowyer has experienced an up-and-down season. If he can lead the No. 15 car to Victory Lane at Sonoma, however, most of those downs will be forgotten. Bowyer may not be viewed by most as a road-course specialist, but he has proven to be quite adept at Sonoma in particular.
Aside from Gordon, nobody has been as consistently good at Sonoma as Bowyer. He boasts an average finish of ninth place with one win, five top-five finishes and six top-10 results in eight tries. He has obviously found the key to success at Sonoma, and he has to know that there is a golden opportunity in front of him in terms of qualifying for the Chase.
Bowyer immediately made his presence felt during the lead-up to Sunday's race, as he topped the field in practice, according to Dustin Long of Motor Racing Network:
There is obviously a big difference between performing in practice and excelling in the race itself, but Bowyer has already proved that he is quite capable of doing both. Among the drivers that typically run well at Sonoma, Bowyer may be the most desperate since he still hasn't won a race. Perhaps that desperation will help him put himself in the Chase field by the end of the day on Sunday.
Marcos Ambrose is a solid driver who is able to do pretty well for himself on all types of tracks, but it is no secret that he thrives on road courses. Both of Ambrose's two career wins on the Sprint Cup circuit have come at Watkins Glen. While he has yet to taste victory at Sonoma, Ambrose has come close on a few occasions.
Ambrose may not be considered one of the elite drivers in NASCAR, but he is fully aware that he has a chance to crash the Chase party with just a single win. Ambrose and the No. 9 team undoubtedly go all out on a weekly basis in an order to cross the finish line first, but he admitted that extra focus has been placed on Sonoma, according to Jared Turner of FoxSports.com.
We know that 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.
Even though he hasn't won, Ambrose has finished in the top 10 in five of his six starts at Sonoma. That would seem to suggest that he will at least put himself in position to contend late. If he is in the mix, Ambrose definitely has the tools to finish the job on a road course.
The fact that only eight drivers in Sunday's field have won at Sonoma underscores the fact that road-course racing isn't for everyone. It wouldn't be wise to count anyone out before the race even happens, but there are clearly some drivers who are better equipped to succeed at Sonoma than others.
Who will win the 2014 Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma?
In addition to Gordon, Bowyer and Ambrose, one driver to watch is Tony Stewart. He has won twice at Sonoma, which makes him one of just two active drivers with multiple victories there. Stewart hasn't had a particularly good season and needs a win to qualify for the Chase, so he figures to be motivated.
Also, as is always the case, Jimmie Johnson will be a threat to win. Johnson has one win and seven top-10 finishes at Sonoma, so he isn't inept on road courses by any means. He also happens to have the hot hand, with three wins in four weeks, so he'll be dangerous.
Among those who could slip in under the radar are AJ Allmendinger and Martin Truex Jr. Allmendinger has two top-10 results and a pole at Sonoma in just five races, while Truex won this race last year.
Both drivers would love to crash the Chase party, but Gordon is simply too good at this track when push comes to shove, and he'll be celebrating at the conclusion of the race.
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