For those who believe that NASCAR is nothing more than a bunch of cars going in circles, they’ll be confused this weekend. The 16th race of the 2010 Sprint Cup Series season comes to Sonoma, CA for the first road course race of the year.
The 12-turn course never leaves drivers time to relax. Throw in some hills and a few bumps along the way, and it’s a day full of hoping your driver can keep it on the blacktop. For those like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, it sounds like heaven as they head to a track they’ve both won on before.
The two drivers are winless this season; Stewart, though, has been on a little streak the past few weeks with a third place at Pocono and a top five in Michigan last weekend. As for Gordon, he started off the season as a weekly contender, but things have cooled in his pit box recently.
But just because you’re a road course ace doesn’t mean you’ll be the one in victory lane.
Last season, Kasey Kahne shocked NASCAR nation by winning this event, opening the door for what could be another surprise winner this year. Jimmie Johnson has yet to capture the elusive road course win, and the hottest man on the circuit right now, Denny Hamlin, is also in that category.
Or will this be the weekend that drivers such as Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya show their strength? Each driver is a long shot to make the Chase, and they’re focused solely on winning. Montoya earned his first career win at Sonoma back in 2007 while as Ambrose is still searching, even though he has two wins in the Nationwide Series at Watkins Glen.
Whatever may happen, this is a race that fans won’t want to miss. There is bound to be trouble at every corner and it’s never over until you’ve crossed the finish line. For drivers looking to keep their Chase positions, or move into the Chase, Sonoma could play a key part in making that happen.
From getting caught up in someone else’s mess—last season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running seventh in the final ten laps before Carl Edwards dumped him and he finished 26th—to creating your own problems, such as Jamie McMurray running off the pavement in turn one numerous times, or the speeding penalties suffered by the favorites at the end of a race, anything can happen at Sonoma.
Sunday won’t be your typical NASCAR race, and time will tell if there will be a typical winner.
In getting to our Creatures, they didn’t see a typical winner in Denny Hamlin at Michigan, as none picked him for the win. Because of such, there was no celebration on their part last week, but that doesn't mean they’re giving up.
Here they are with who they believe will be the one to keep their nose clean and keep it on the pavement this Sunday.
Misan Akuya: Tony Stewart
In the last two races, Tony Stewart has finished third and fifth, living up to the fact when it's summer, Smoke heats up. Stewart will get on a roll soon, and I suspect that Infineon is the perfect place. In 11 starts Stewart has two wins, four top fives, seven top 10s, 77 laps led, and an average finish of 9.27 which is best among drivers with five or more starts. Stewart has seven road course wins total in NASCAR and has become the road course king so to speak. Things are just heating up and expect Stewart back in victory lane.
James Broomhead: Marcos Ambrose
Montoya, Ambrose, Montoya, Ambrose ... which to pick, that's the question. Both are accomplished drivers who have found their feet in NASCAR and are a constant threat when the series embraces the novelty of right hand turns.
Ambrose has had nothing but good runs and bad luck at Sonoma in the past, which is pretty much the story of 2010 for the poor Tasmanian in what was supposed to his breakthrough season.
Kelly Crandall: Marcos Ambrose
I haven’t had the best luck of choosing drives this year, always seeming to psyche myself out and missing a few wins. So, I’m going back to my philosophy of picking the first driver that pops in my head. This week Ambrose gets the nod for a track that he could win his first career race at.
Billy Fellin: Tony Stewart
Not only does road course-plus-Stewart usually equal money in the bank (he finished second in this race last year), but the 14 car has been gaining moment here over the past two races. Not too shabby of a combination.
Adam Heasley: NO PICK SENT
No pick sent.
Christopher Leone: Juan Pablo Montoya
The ex-Formula One star has an average finish of 4.3 in three Infineon starts, including a win in his 2007 debut and top-10s in every race. It doesn’t even matter that his qualifying average is a 23.3—he’ll get through the field.
Kara Martin: Jeff Gordon
With the losses that he has had on the ovals, I am hoping he will make up on this road track. Infineon is a track that Gordon has dominated on. Let's hope that the right hand turns are his key to success.
Dustin Parks: Jeff Gordon
He holds the track record and has the most wins at this place with five. For a driver more known for racing in a circle, he has this place figured out. Gordon is the king of road races, and there's no better place to get his first win on the season.
Patti Rodisch: Jeff Gordon
For the first time all season I am hesitant to pick him for the win. That is not because he is not capable of winning, it's that his performance has dropped in recent weeks. I think on Sunday he will get a father’s day gift he’ll really like: A victory. He has five wins at Infineon and 10 top-five finishes that go along with his 13 top 10s.
This could be exactly what Gordon needs to get back into victory lane. Most have already counted him out this season with his recent runs. A win on Sunday could be exactly what draws him back into the title talk.
Sal Sigala Jr.: Jeff Gordon
Gordon is a five-time winner at the first road course race of the season. Other than Denny Hamlin, who has seven top-five finishes, he is in good company with Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson with six of their own. Gordon has managed to keep himself out of trouble for most of the season, and he is ready to visit an old friend in front of his hometown crowd.
Rob Tiongson: Juan Pablo Montoya
While his season has been far from spectacular, as The Black Eyed Peas hit song goes, "I Got a Feeling" that the man who'll wind up in Victory Lane at Infineon Raceway will be none other than Kara Martin's canine friend's favorite racer, otherwise known as Juan Pablo Montoya.
He has a knack for getting around road courses, which, if you've been living under a rock, is attributed to his days on the Champ Car and F1 circuits from 1999-2006. Needing a tremendous boost in his so-far-mediocre season, you can bet your bottom dollar that JPM will give his all into winning at Infineon, even if it means using the chrome horn.
Alan Wade: Tony Stewart
I think it may be an early summer surge this year for the 14 team. Smoke is entering Infineon Raceway with two consecutive top-five finishes, and hearing Tony talk about a car being "racy" makes me think Darian is finally getting him dialed in this year.
Stewart is probably going to see a real challenge from Gordon, Kahne, and Montoya and maybe a ringer will actually challenge for the lead this year. With the potential of a late re-start, I have to give the edge to Tony.
Billy Fellin (2,138 ) Jeff Gordon finished fourth (3 )
Kara Martin (2,118 ) Jeff Gordon finished fourth (2 )
Sal Sigala Jr. (2,027 ) Jimmie Johnson finished sixth (1 )
James Broomhead (2,009 ) Kasey Kahne finished second (2 )
Christopher Leone (1,988 ) Jeff Gordon finished fourth (3 )
Kelly Crandall (1,974 ) Matt Kenseth finished 14th (2 )
Dustin Parks (1,966 ) Carl Edwards finished 12th (2 )
Rob Tiongson (1,938 ) Jimmie Johnson finished sixth (0 )
Patti Rodisch (1,841 ) Carl Edwards finished 12th (0 )
Misan Akuya (1,791 ) Jamie McMurray finished 24th (1 )
Adam Heasley (962 ) NO PICK SENT (0 )
Alan Wade (292 ) Matt Kenseth finished 14th (0 )
There will be “road course ringers” in the field this Sunday, but it will be highly unlikely that any of them will challenge for the win. Over the past few years it’s been Sprint Cup Series regulars, who are more accustomed to the car, that have shown their road course skills and that’s not likely to change this weekend.
An interesting story to watch out of the Jimmie Johnson camp: Wife Chandra is due with their first child anytime over the next few weeks and Aric Almirola is on standby for Johnson; however, he won’t be for Sonoma. Will little girl Johnson make her appearance this weekend and have Johnson running home? Or will he be able to stay in his home state and capture another win?
Summary of Picks
Jeff Gordon – 4
Tony Stewart – 3
Marcos Ambrose – 2
Juan Pablo Montoya – 2