The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series only visits two road courses a year, and this weekend marks the first of those two events: The Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway.
Road course events frequently bring out road course ringers, usually ex-open wheel and sports car drivers who will replace teams’ normal drivers for the single weekend. They give the smaller and/or struggling teams a good chance at stealing a win or two over the course of the season. One, Sweden’s Mattias Ekstrom, will make his NASCAR debut for Team Red Bull after establishing a career as one of the best touring car drivers ever seen in Germany.
So who’s a solid pick for this weekend’s race? Don’t just pick the biggest names in the sport. Some of the top options aren’t who you think.
Unless, of course, your pick is Juan Pablo Montoya, in which case you’re right on the money. The ex-Formula 1 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.
As for a dark horse, my pick is Boris Said, who returns to the Latitude 43 Motorsports car this weekend. Said always has a decent shot at winning road course races, which is why he seems to find a ride at just about every NASCAR road course event year in and year out.
But besides the lack of prestige and results produced thus far by the No. 26 team, what makes Said a dark horse is his underwhelming 20.3 average finish at Infineon, with only four top-10s and a best finish of sixth in 10 starts.
Clint Bowyer, whose Infineon stats are quietly second best in the series, will give you a good shot at a decent finish. Though he’s never won, his 8.0 average finish is second only to Montoya’s. He has two fourth-place finishes in four starts and a worst finish of 16th , with all 445 possible laps completed.
As for the other three picks I normally give you?
Jeff Gordon, meanwhile, may be one of the best Infineon drivers of all time, his average finish only down to a 9.3 because of the occasional poor finish in 17 starts. That does not, however, take away from his five wins, including three in a row from 1998 to 2000.
He hasn’t led any laps since his last win in 2006, but he has led substantial portions of the race in each of the nine times he’s held the point. Gordon only has four finishes outside of the top three at Infineon in the past ten years, and two of those were still top-10s.
Finally, Denny Hamlin has been on a tear recently, winning five of the last 10 events. This puts him third in points with a huge advantage once the Chase starts.
His Infineon record is not stellar but acceptable, with two top-10s in four starts and only one finish in the bottom half of the field. He even led 33 laps at the track last year. His momentum, however, and not his track expertise, will be the key for him to secure another strong finish.