Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sonoma Toyota/Save Mart 350 Storylines

Big win for Earnhardt Jr solidifies his place in in the standings (Getty)
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 19th career victory at Michigan International Speedway dramatically changed the conversation from “when” to “what’s next?” Earnhardt emphatically ended a four-year, 143-race winless drought and closed to within four points of championship leader Matt Kenseth. The victory further cemented the 37-year-old Earnhardt’s status as a legitimate title contender.

NASCAR goes road racing this weekend: the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its annual pilgrimage to Sonoma, north of San Francisco while the NASCAR Nationwide Series tackles Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. The NASCAR K&N Pro Series West shares the Sonoma track while GRAND-AM Road Racing is in action at Road America.

Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, a five-time Sonoma winner, said road racing no longer is an after-thought for many teams. The new car has leveled the playing field and double-file restarts contribute to short track style competition. Sonoma’s Toyota/Save-Mart 350 has seen seven consecutive different winners – the last four for the first time in a Sprint Cup road race.

To be determined is how the top three in current NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings will fare. Kenseth, Earnhardt and Greg Biffle are winless as road racers in NASCAR’s premier series.

Chase “wild card” action continues to simmer with two road racing experts joining the top 20 in points following the Michigan weekend. Former Sonoma winner Juan Pablo Montoya (19th) and Gordon (20th) are now eligible for a post-season berth if they can amass enough wins.

With neither Carl Edwards nor Reed Sorenson in the field, there will be a new winner of the SARGENTO 200. Richard Childress Racing teammates Elliott Sadler and Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader Austin Dillon are one-two in points entering the season’s first of three road course races.

The Road America field is full of part-time road racing specialists including Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and Watkins Glen International NNS winner Ron Fellows of Canada.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competitors Nelson Piquet Jr. and Miguel Paludo take advantage of an off week in the schedule to compete at Road America with the NASCAR Nationwide Series. The trucks return to competition on Thursday, June 28 at Kentucky Speedway.


Junior Eyes Next Goal: A Road Course Win
Ending a 143-race winless streak at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday just whetted Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s appetite. Junior obviously wants to join his late father Dale Earnhardt as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. First, he wants a road course victory and he’ll get his next opportunity at Sonoma on Sunday. Junior has yet to finish in the top 10 at the 1.99-mile layout but has a pair of top-five finishes at Watkins Glen International, the other left and right turn course on the schedule.

“We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top-ten at that place. We have a lot (left) to accomplish this year,” he said. Accident damage and overheating relegated Junior to a 41st-place finish at Sonoma in 2011.

Points Leaders More Than Just Contenders
Roush Fenway Racing vs. Hendrick Motorsports. Ford vs. Chevrolet. What’s not to like about that? The two organizations/manufacturers share the top four spots in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings with RFR’s Matt Kenseth holding a four-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr. Greg Biffle, who led the points for much of the year, is third followed by five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Not to rule out anyone among the top 10 – or Wild Card possibles as well – but the four leaders are red hot. They claimed all but one top five positions in Michigan.

Kenseth, Earnhardt and Biffle have yet to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup road race.

Gordon: Road Course Racing Changes For The Better
Jeff Gordon is a five-time Sonoma winner but that doesn’t mean he’s got the keys to the Northern California course in his pocket. Far from it. Gordon last won in 2006 – the season before the current NASCAR Sprint Cup chassis was introduced. The new car has evened the playing field and brought more contenders into the mix. No longer do many teams bring older, short track cars to the road courses. And, Gordon added, double-file restarts have made the road races more like Martinsville’s slamming and shoving than traditional, follow the leaders and hit your marks affairs.

Want more proof? Sonoma’s last seven races have produced seven different winners. The last four – Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch – posted their first Sprint Cup road course victories.

It’s the annual homecoming race for Gordon, who was born in Vallejo a few miles east of Sonoma. Busch, Kahne, Johnson and the Busch brothers also hail from the west coast along with Watkins Glen road race winner Kevin Harvick.

Who’s Next To Join Road Race Winners’ List?
If there’s an eighth different Sonoma winner he could be Clint Bowyer or Brad Keselowski. Both are battling to retain top-10 points positions and each has a knack for turning left and right. Bowyer, ninth in the standings, finished seventh in Michigan. He owns the third-best average finish among active drivers (11.2) at Sonoma trailing only Jeff Gordon (8.7) and Juan Pablo Montoya (9.0). Keselowski is a relative newcomer to NASCAR Sprint Cup road racing but finished 10thin last year’s Sonoma race and was second at Watkins Glen after Marcos Ambrose initiated a pass two laps from the checkered flag. Keselowski stands 10th – three points ahead of another non-road race winner Carl Edwards.

Speaking of JPM
It’s been a trying year and half for Juan Pablo Montoya, who entered last weekend’s Michigan race with a single top-10 finish and a points ranking outside the top 20. The Columbian finished eighth running among the top 10 throughout the second half of the 400-mile race. “Our team has a lot of potential and today we showed a little bit of what we can do,” said Montoya who accomplished one goal: reaching the top 20 and a shot at a “wild card” entry into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™. JPM qualified for NASCAR’s post season just once finishing eighth in 2009. He scored his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win at Sonoma in 2007.

Jeff Gordon also became Wild Card eligible (20th) with his sixth-place finish but the category’s leaders remain Kyle Busch (12th), Ryan Newman (13th), Joey Logano (15th) and Kasey Kahne (16th). Each has a single win. The two highest ranked competitors with the most wins occupying points positions 11-20 qualify for the post season.

- NASCAR Media Services

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