Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sonoma Post Practice Driver Ratings

by M Roberts

After both practices were run Saturday at Infineon Raceway in preparation for Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350, there are several drivers heading the list that don’t get a lot of print time for being considered a contender to win. In a normal week, the discussions are all about Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Carl Edwards and how fast they are in practice.

This week we get to analyze the times of Robby Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Ron Fellows, and A.J. Allmendinger because despite having lesser cars without the financial backing of the mega teams, they themselves are the equalizer. The 10 turn 1.99 mile road course is a welcome site for a few, while some of the traditional NASCAR oval drivers hope to just finish and leave.

For the two sessions, many teams were attempting differing strategies during different segments. Some teams were using older tires in an attempt to simulate longer runs, which made their times lower on the leader board.

Others were attempting fuel conservation strategies by not running so hard to see the difference in times and fuel used. Theoretically, the cars should have to pit every 33 laps, but some of the crews are talking like they can get close to 40 laps on one run which, if were true, would mean that a team could get by with only two pit stops in the 110 lap race. It always looks good on paper early on before the race as a game plan, but never seems to happen.

The ratings below are based on both of Saturday’s practice sessions with an emphasis on average times, mixed in with some of their past road racing history, along with a small pinch of where they start on the track because being up front is so critical.

1) Robby Gordon had the fifth fastest lap in the early session and then the third fastest in the final session. In the final session, Gordon had the fastest average times with 13 laps run which shows that he ’s maintaining high speeds for a longer duration than most and will help him mow down the 21 drivers ahead of him to begin the race.

I loved his confidence before the race regarding his brand new chassis. He’s been talking about it for two weeks since his Road Atlanta test session. The only fault with Gordon has been his parts, which seem to fail him just about every year on the roads since leaving RCR.

2) Ron Fellows has to start from the 29th position, but after some major changes in their set up Friday, they came out strong in both sessions. He laid down the second quickest lap during happy hour, but was also second fastest in average times for both sessions combined. He’s got NASCAR wins in the Nationwide and Truck Series, but hasn’t been able claim a Cup win yet.

3) Juan Pablo Montoya will start from the 17th position and looks to have the best car among all the well funded teams running this week. He was second quickest in the early session and fourth in happy hour with good average times in all. His only Cup win is at Sonoma during his first season and is sitting pretty good to end the drought this week.

4) A.J. Allmendinger has got things figured out after two great practice sessions Saturday. He had a strong upward progression in both practices beginning with seventh fastest early and then reeling out the fastest lap just as happy hour ended. He likely came in to get tires just as the session ended, but after running a total of 17 laps in that session, Allmendinger should be very good Sunday.

5) Ryan Newman may be one of the drivers that can get to the front quickly and maintain a solid position throughout the race. He’ll only have two rows of cars in front of him when the green flag drops and his final practice session was very encouraging for a driver that has good success on the road courses. He had the sixth fastest lap and average time in that session.

Best of the Rest

Tony Stewart didn’t practice well but it might be more about trying some different things with the tires and fuel mileage than what his car can actually do. Before qualifying Friday, Stewart had awful times and then went out and busted out the fourth fastest lap for qualifying. Starting up front will be huge for Stewart early.

Jeff Gordon has never looked worse in any road course practice session as he did Saturday. He stated that the team didn’t treat these races with the same emphasis as the other because there are only two roads, but that has been the case every year. They were one of the teams that tried lots of different strategies during both practices, but being 30th and 20th quickest in the final two sessions are not the Gordon times I have seen from him ever at a place that is considered his home track. I don’t believe the times, so I still consider him a contender.

Kyle Busch swept the roads last year and won at Mexico City in the Nationwide series. Other than running a strong qualifying lap that will start up front, he hasn’t done anything in practice to make me think he’ll hold the lead for very long despite it being hard to pass. Busch also had to change his transmission prior to happy hour with results that weren’t successful. However, I also didn’t think he could win at Sonoma or Watkins Glen last year.

Jamie McMurray has had very good runs at Sonoma and practiced well.
Last years pole sitter, Kasey Kahne, also had a strong practice session.
Clint Bowyer finished fourth at Sonoma last season and ran two great session coming in second and seventh.
Marcos Ambrose was fastest in the first practice but blew an engine and will be going to the back of the field. He came out to run only one lap in happy hour, but it wasn’t very fast.

In all, there aren’t many drivers that have joined the road racing winner fraternity. There are currently only seven active drivers that have won a road race at both tracks combined. This week has a great possibility of having someone join the ranks just because Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, and Kyle Busch don’t look to be as stout coming in as they have been in the past when they won.

That leaves us with Montoya and Robby Gordon as the top two candidates of past road course winners to win this week. While I’d love to see Ron Fellows finally break through, I think it’s Montoya’s race to lose based on all the variables.

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