Wednesday, June 20, 2012

2012 Sonoma Preview: Chase Chances Could Hinge on Courses

NASCAR to thrive for next few weeks as TV ratings will be sky high (Getty) 
By Micah Roberts

Leave it to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make the biggest splash of the 2012 NASCAR season with his dominating Michigan performance last Sunday that ended a 143 race winless drought. It wasn’t so much that it had been nearly four years to the date of his last win, or that it came on the same track, it was the manner it which it happened, more specifically, occurring on Fathers Day.

It also helps the moment that half the crowd wearing their green No. 88 gear at the track finally got to see their driver win a race and had the stands looking like a frenzied Shea Stadium after Bill Buckner booted the ball in the 1986 World Series. The crowd was as loud as I’ve heard a NASCAR race be since July of 2001, another Junior win coming at Daytona the year his Father passed away.

The only person probably happier to see Junior win was NASCAR President Brian France who admitted before the season that NASCAR would be greatly helped if Junior was winning races.

The effect of Junior’s win should be a tidal wave of renewed enthusiasm for NASCAR which means a boom for television ratings. NASCAR ratings have either dropped or been flat over the last four years and while the economy has been attributed to some of the declines, a lot of it has to do with Junior not being successful.

Junior fans are passionate and proud, but they haven’t had a lot to cheer about. Losing 143 straight times as a fan in any sport can be a heavy burden to carry. A lot of the Junior nation had a thought process that went. 'Why waste my Sunday afternoon going to the race or watching it on television when the most likely scenario is being strapped with an inevitable loss.'

Losing teams always have lower attendance in every sport, but the franchise of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now on a winning streak. He also has himself firmly entrenched in second-place of the standings, four points behind Matt Kenseth.

With the way he’s been running all season, most knew a win was on the horizon, but what about winning the championship? Could Dale Earnhardt Jr. actually be in line to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship? If the answer is yes, you had better make a run over to the LVH Super Book at get your 10-to-1 ticket.

One thing is certain this week, we won’t be seeing Junior get back-to-back wins because this week’s race is on the road course in Sonoma, a place where Junior has never cracked the top-10 in 12 career starts.

When I look at the candidates to win this week, I can’t seem to take my eyes off the name of Jeff Gordon. Maybe I’m searching for feel good stories like we had last week, but it just seems like a good spot for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. In the last month we’ve seen Gordon’s teammates of Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt Jr. all win races. The only goose egg on the team board belongs to Gordon.

Gordon needs wins to get in the Chase and he has the luxury over the next two months of racing on two tracks where he has a considerable advantage. Gordon is a five-time winner at Sonoma and a four time winner at Watkins Glen, but hasn’t tasted victory on either track since 2006.

Gordon has shrugged off the recent winless streak on the road courses saying the races didn’t mean as much in their overall picture which is why his team focused less on his road set-ups than they did in the past when he was dominating. But these races now mean everything to his season.

Because he’s sitting 20th in points, and has virtually no chance at making the Chase based on points, he needs to get at least two wins to secure one of the final two at-large bids that go to the drivers with the most wins. There are currently four drivers ahead of him with one win each.

Gordon was runner-up last season at Sonoma and hasn’t finished outside the top-10 in the five races since his last win there. Look for Gordon to treat this event like the most important race of his season and fight not to just finish in the top-5, but fight for the win. I like the desperation angle this week.

The driver Gordon will have to beat is Marcos Ambrose who finally got his first Cup win last season at Watkins Glen after several near misses. Ambrose finds himself in the same situation as Gordon regarding the Chase, except he's in 17th-place. Ambrose could find himself making the Chase by grabbing both road races, a situation that seems far more probable than Gordon's.

And Ambrose really loves the layout of the track.

“Sonoma is a great track and I love it," Ambrose said earlier this week. "It is one of the smallest, most technical, race tracks that a driver can go to, and we are going there with one of the biggest, laziest, dinosaurs you could ever imagine. A stock car around that place is unreal. I never imagined we could run so fast at that kind of place with as little throttle as we do. It’s really just all about momentum and looking after your tires and that’s what makes Sonoma so great. It’s also what makes the racing fantastic, because it is all in the drivers hands and I like that type of racing. Sonoma is one of my favorite races of all time.”

A driver that you always have to pay attention to at Sonoma is Juan Pablo Montoya just because of his long history of road racing in all major racing series. He won his first career race at Sonoma in his first try, but hasn't finished better than sixth in his last four attempts.

“A lot of memories from Sonoma. Good and bad," said Montoya who is currently 16th in points. "Obviously I got my first Cup win there five years ago but ever since then we’ve struggled. Which is surprising considering how well we run at Watkins Glen.

"We tested at VIR a couple of months back and I was really happy with the car so hopefully we figured something out coming into the race this weekend. You’re at that point in the season where you need to step things up. It’s really important for us to run well at Sonoma and have a strong finish for the Target team."

The driver that wins will probably stick to the game plan regarding fuel strategy without much alteration. The goal is to make only two pit stops. Sometimes that goal gets comprosmised when a caution occurs a bit earlier than the initial game plan allows for. To keep control of their own fate, it's also important to qualify well and run up front. Trouble usually finds those who are mired in the back, especially on double-file restarts.

A.J. Allmendinger has a nice look this week. He's got five career road wins in Champ Cars and is driving for the team that won at Sonoma last year with Kurt Busch driving.

Looking forward to a change of pace on the season.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
2) #29 Kevin Harvick (8/1)
3) #9 Marcos Ambrose (4/1)
4) #14 Tony Stewart (5/1)
5) #42 Juan Pablo Montoya (6/1)        

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