Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ambrose Dominates Saturday Practice; Looks Primed To Get His First Cup Win

For the first 15 races run in the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, the drivers have raced on a variety of ovals ranging in all different sizes with the common link being that they make left turns all race long. This week at Infineon Raceway, NASCAR fans get to see the drivers make right and left turns on the Sonoma road course, one of only two road races run on the season.
The change of pace and seeing these big heavy stock cars whip in and out of the turns is a welcomed sight. With the technical aspect of racing on road courses, the list of candidates to win is vastly different from what we normally see on ovals. While Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and the Busch brothers have hogged most of the wins and headlines this year, at the road courses, the names of Marcos Ambrose, Robby Gordon, and Juan Pablo Montoya get their chance at the limelight.
Marcos Ambrose has had a tough season thus far sitting 30th in points with only one top-10 finish, but based on the way he practiced Friday and Saturday, things are about to get better really fast. Not only was Ambrose faster than everyone else in all three practice sessions, but he did it by a wide margin in both single and average lap times. There isn’t anyone even close to Ambrose.
If looking at what Ambrose has done in his last three road course races where he had similar practice results, there is good reason to believe that Ambrose could be in line for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win. Between the last three combined races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, Ambrose has finished no worse than third-place.   
The drivers that would appear to give Ambrose the most trouble Sunday have been the two best road warriors over the last 12 years. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have combined to win 16 road races in their career. While Gordon hasn’t been the same dominant road racer he once was, Stewart is still in his prime having won at Watkins Glen last season.
Gordon and Stewart didn’t have very good practices on Saturday, but their good starting positions and past history suggest they will be just fine on race day. Stewart is also coming into this race with back to back top-five finishes, his best run of the season.  
Kevin Harvick has never been known for his road racing skills, but his skills are pretty advanced in comparison with some of the others regulars. He won at Watkins Glen in 2006 and finished runner-up at Sonoma in 2007. Outside of Ambrose, Harvick had the best combined practice and qualifying sessions placing within the top-six of each.
Harvick’s Childress Racing teammates all should have decent runs Sunday as well. Jeff Burton has only one career top-five in his 16 Sonoma starts, but he was getting around the track pretty good on Saturday as he had the third fastest practice lap during happy hour. Clint Bowyer has shown just by his past performances at Sonoma that he likes the track. In four starts, Bowyer has an average finish of eighth that include two fourth-place finishes.
The Ganassi entries of Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray should fare well Sunday. Montoya has road racing in his blood with his huge credentials from his CART and F-1 days. In his first year of NASCAR racing, Montoya won this race, his only win to date. In his last two runs at Sonoma, Montoya has finished sixth.
During practice, Montoya didn’t wow anyone with speeds, but McMurray did. After starting slow on Friday, McMurray got things together and reeled off the second fastest lap of the day during happy hour. McMurray’s best finish at Sonoma was second-place in 2004.
Martin Truex Jr had a great practice Saturday finishing with the fifth and sixth best times. The speeds shouldn’t come as a surprise just because of all the good information that Marcos Ambrose relayed to his teammates. Truex Jr has shown in the past that he’s pretty good on the roads when he won the 2005 Mexico road race while in the Nationwide Series.
Another past Mexico winner is Denny Hamlin who won there in 2006. Hamlin had his best Sonoma run last year finishing in fifth. In four starts, Hamlin’s average finish position has been 13.5.
Robby Gordon swept the two road course races in 2003 while driving for Richard Childress. He’s one of the best in NASCAR, but he hasn’t had the equipment to show off the last few years while driving the car he owns. Nevertheless, the roads are the great equalizer where the driver has more to do with winning a race than any other on the circuit. Should Gordon’s car stay on the track for the entire race, he’ll make a strong run at stealing this race.
Kasey Kahne turned some heads with his win at Sonoma last year. He had never shown anything in five previous races at Sonoma where his best finish was 23rd in 2007, but he battled hard and won. The way he held off Tony Stewart, who was breathing down his neck in the final stages of the race waiting for Kahne to make a mistake, raised Kahne’s level as a NASCAR driver in many peoples book. Kahne is starting on the pole, but had very ordinary practice times on Saturday.      
 Roberts Weekly Driver Ratings Each week I will provide an analysis of my top rated drivers on how well they will do in the race based on the following criteria:
• Practice sessions leading up to the weekend’s Sprint Cup race
• Chassis information on what was brought to each track by each team, good or bad
• Driver tendencies at certain tracks
• Recent and overall histories for each driver at each track
• Decipher poor past results with what really happened, good car -- or bad luck?
These final ratings should help assist in final betting strategies with the Las Vegas books or match-up and prop plays, as well as help in NASCAR fantasy leagues.

Micah Roberts Top 10 Driver Ratings
Toyota/Save Mart 350
Infineon (Sonoma) Raceway
Sunday, June 20, 2010 - 12:18 pm (PDT)
Rating    Driver     Odds       Practice 1    Qualifying   Practice 2   Practice 3        
 1. Marcos Ambrose 6/1          1st                  6th                1st              1st
Has finished no worse than third-place in his last three Sprint Cup road race starts.
 2. Jeff Gordon 5/1                   7th                 5th                21st            13th
Nine career road course wins; five wins at Sonoma with last coming in 2006.
 3. Tony Stewart 5/1                32nd               7th                15th            23rd
Seven career road course wins; two wins at Sonoma. Won at Watkins Glen last year.
 4. Kevin Harvick 12/1              5th                 4th                 6th             4th
Won at Watkins Glen in 2006, best Sonoma finish came in 2007 with second-place.
 5. Juan Pablo Montoya 12/1  14th              14th                13th           12th
Won this race in 2007 and finished sixth the last two seasons; his best track in NASCAR.
 6. Martin Truex Jr 40/1          10th               10th                5th              6th
Outstanding Saturday practice using a set-up similar to Ambrose. Won at Mexico in Nationwide series road race. 
 7. Denny Hamlin 12/1            16th               12th                7th              8th
Won 2006 Nationwide series race on Mexico’s road course. Finished fifth last year at Sonoma.
 8. Jamie McMurray 40/1        24th               25th                9th              2nd
Best finish came in 2004 with second-place. Had one of the fastest cars during final practice.
 9. Kasey Kahne 6/1                4th                  1st                17th            25th
Last years surprise winner at Sonoma; It was his first finish inside the top-20 in six previous starts.
10. Robby Gordon 35/1          13th                16th               14th            14th                              
Two-time road course winner, sweeping the 2003 season -- his last top-15 finish at Sonoma.
Odds courtesy of the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book. 

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