Saturday, June 21, 2014

Final Sonoma Practice Notes: Kurt Busch looks like the best of several quality candidates

Kevin Harvick could make it 10 straight different drivers to win at Sonoma
What a breath of fresh air it is to talk about road course racing this week, not only because it’s a treat to see so many drivers out of their element making right and left turns, but also because we have an entirely new cast of quality candidates to win which would break Hendrick Motorsports five race winning streak.

There have been nine different winners at Sonoma Raceway the past nine seasons, and Sunday’s race could easily be the 10th straight as we have Kevin Harvick and Marcos Ambrose rated as two of the top-four candidates to win Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

For the past five races, all the talk has been about horsepower and how the Hendrick Chevy engines have the most of it, but when monitoring the speeds from Friday’s two practice sessions and Saturday’s qualifying, the four Hendrick cars aren’t in the conversation much.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was surprisingly good on Friday for a driver that didn’t do any road course testing prior to this weeks race, but no top-10 finishes in 14 career starts at Sonoma make him somewhat of a leper at the sports books. Jeff Gordon has finished second in two of the past three Sonoma events, but the last of his NASCAR-best nine road course wins came in 2006. Jimmie Johnson, winner of three of the past four Cup races and 2010 Sonoma winner, was surprisingly slow on Friday with his fastest lap only being 21st best.

There are more drivers than ever that have a chance at winning Sunday, and most of them can be found from a top-10 starting positing where 18 of the 25 (72%) Sonoma races have been won from. Eight of those 25 races have been won from the front row. The furthest a driver has started to win at Sonoma is 32nd by Juan Pablo Montoya in 2007.

Of course, the double-file restarts have given drivers in the back a better opportunity to move up quicker in recent years, but with passing so difficult and only a few key sports on the 1.99-mile 10 turn course to make those passes, being near the front gives drivers the best opportunity to win just like we see in most Formula-1 races.

The driver that stands out the most based on what happened Friday and Saturday is Kurt Busch, who is making his third straight Sonoma start with a different team. It hasn’t mattered what car Busch has been in, whether it’s been the No. 97 Ford, the No. 2 Dodge, No. 78 Chevy or the No. 41 Chevy, Busch has a great feel for the track and has had the second best Loop Rating (107.8) since NASCAR began collecting loads of data at each track in 2005.

Busch won in 2011, meaning if he won Sunday, it would halt Sonoma’s different winner streak at nine. In 2012, he came close with a third-place finish and last season he was fourth. It’s quite possible that his Stewart-Haas car he’s using this week is better than all of the cars he used the past three seasons.

Clint Bowyer might have been the top-rated driver to win this week had he qualified better than 25th on Saturday. Despite the poor start, Bowyer should be one of those cars that moves up quickly, and if he can stay out dangers way while bunched up with the lesser cars in the middle of the pack, he should be competing for the win with less than 20 laps to go. His poor starting position should offer some great value at the sports books.

We left off our list a few of the fastest drivers in qualifying such as Jamie McMurray, A.J. Allmendinger and Kyle Larson only because their past history at Sonoma didn’t merit being ahead of anyone in our top-10. Allmendinger, however, is very adept on the roads and you couldn’t be faulted for taking a shot with him at the bet window if getting decent odds.

Another long shot to seriously consider that would make it 10 straight different winners at Sonoma is Bowyer’s teammate Brian Vickers. The Michael Waltrip Racing program has won the past two seasons at Sonoma and both Bowyer and Vickers appear to have similar winning type of set-ups. The big difference between the two teams is that Vickers has a much more favorable start position (8th).

Read More Here.......Final Sonoma Driver Ratings

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