Two elite teams: Roush Fenway Racing vs. Hendrick Motorsports.
Two former Sprint Cup Series champions: Matt Kenseth vs. Jimmie Johnson.
Two hungry, would-be titlists: Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Two motivated manufacturers: Ford vs. Chevrolet.
Just 11 races remain until the lineup for NASCAR’s post season Chase is finalized at Richmond International Raceway, and as they did exactly 12 months ago, the storylines at the top of the championship standings are beginning to heat up.
Kenseth, the 2003 series champion and this year’s Daytona 500 winner, carries a four-point lead over Earnhardt into Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma. Kenseth’s Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Greg Biffle, has led the standings himself for most of the season, and is close behind in third place. Johnson, a five-time series champion and already a two-time winner in 2012, is closing fast in fourth.
All four drivers claimed Top-5 finishing positions last week in Michigan, and hope to maintain their respective momentum on the California road course this weekend. Kenseth, Earnhardt and Biffle would appear to have the tougher challenges of the group, having never won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series road race. Johnson, a top-notch road racer, is a former winner at Sonoma, having claimed the checkered flag there in 2010.
As a team, Hendrick Motorsports leads all organizations with six victories at Sonoma. Roush Fenway Racing has just a single win on the 1.99-mile layout; Mark Martin’s 1997 score.
While Chevrolet leads all manufacturers at Sonoma with 10 victories, only one of those wins has come since 2006. Ford’s last Sonoma win came courtesy of now-retired Ricky Rudd, back in 2002.
This weekend’s race has all the makings of a hum-dinger, especially if a handful of drivers decide to turn Sonoma into the OK Corral for the second year in a row. In recent seasons, Sonoma and Watkins Glen have supplanted Bristol and Martinsville as NASCAR’s preferred venues for settling old scores and grudges.
A little of that Sunday would go a long way toward stoking the fires of fan interest, as well.