Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sonoma Could Shuffle Sprint Cup Standings

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its annual trip to Wine Country this week, racing on the road course in Sonoma, California. The championship picture has begun to heat up in recent weeks, with Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle playing hot potato with the points lead, while maintaining a small edge over fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. This weekend’s race could shuffle the deck dramatically. 

Ambrose: Red hot and rolling.
Whenever NASCAR competes on a road course, Marcos Ambrose is on the short list of contenders for Victory Lane. The former Aussie V8 Supercar champion has arguably established himself as the best right-turn artist in NASCAR, with three Top-10 finishes (and two Top-5s) in four career Sonoma starts. He heads to California on the highest roll of his brief NASCAR career, with finishes of 13th or better in four of his last five races. Should he capture his second career Sprint Cup Series win Sunday, sponsor Stanley Tools will donate $1 million to Children's Miracle Network Hospitals through the Ace Hardware Foundation to benefit sick and injured children. Currently 17th in championship points, Ambrose’s best bet for a spot in the 2012 Chase is as a Wildcard entrant. To accomplish that, he needs to win races. With a string of fast race cars in recent weeks and a load of momentum on his side, Sonoma offers a golden opportunity for him to do just that.

Jimmie Johnson continues his midseason surge, with four Top-5 finishes and a pair of wins in the last five races. After suffering through an early season run of bad luck, “Five Time” has just one finish outside the Top-12 in his last 14 starts; a 35th at Talladega. A former winner at Sonoma and one of the more accomplished road racers in NASCAR, Johnson has Top-10 finishes in five of his 10 Sonoma starts. However, he also has a pair of 30-something finishes there.  

Gordon needs a win at Sonoma
Jeff Gordon showed signs of life last weekend in Michigan, recording a solid, sixth-place finish. His considerable road course talents need to continue that rebound this week. He has recorded an amazing 12 Top-5 finishes in 19 career Sonoma starts, with five wins. He hasn’t carried a checkered flag there since 2006, but a runner-up finish to Kurt Busch last year proved he hasn’t lost his touch. Currently 20th in points, Gordon’s only hope for a Chase berth is to win at least two – and likely three – of the next 11 races. A win Sunday will keep hope alive for a while long. Anything less may be too much to overcome. 

A second-place finish at Michigan Sunday helped Tony Stewart stabilize his spot in the Sprint Cup Series Top-10. Currently eighth in points, Stewart returns to a Sonoma track that has been good to him in the past. The defending series champion is a two-time Sonoma winner, racing to Victory Lane there in 2001 and 2005. He was a contender for the checkered flag last year, as well, before an “If they block, they are going to get dumped” incident with Brian Vickers ruined the day for both competitors. If he can keep his temper in check, “Smoke” will be a threat again Sunday. 

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. leads all drivers with 12 Top-10 finishes this season, culminating in Sunday’s win at Michigan International Speedway. He’ll be hard pressed to record another Top-10 at Sonoma, however. Earnhardt has traditionally not fared well on road courses, and an average Sonoma finish of 22.2 makes him a dark horse bet – at best --for Victory Lane this weekend.  

Kenseth (R) has struggled on road courses
Matt Kenseth maintains the Sprint Cup Series championship points lead by just four points over Earnhardt. The former series champion has made the most of his trademark consistency this season, recording nine Top-10 finishes in the last 10 races. The last time he finished outside the Top-10 was an 11th at Richmond on April 28th, but like Earnhardt, Kenseth struggles mightily on road courses. In 12 career Sonoma starts, he has just one Top-10 finish, and an average showing of 22.5.  

Third place point man Greg Biffle’s road course record is surprisingly strong. In nine career Sonoma starts, he has two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes, with a career-best showing of four back in 2006. While The Biff may not be a bona fide threat to win Sunday, a Top-5 finish could push him back in front of Kenseth and Earnhardt for the Sprint Cup points lead.  

If you’re looking for a dark horse pick, AJ Allmendinger’s background in karting and Open Wheel racing includes a heavy regimen of road course experience. He could dearly use a top finish – or even a win – to resurrect what has been a miserable first half-season with Penske Racing, and his 24th-place points standings means he and crew chief Todd Gordon will gamble to win. The California native’s best career Sonoma finish – a seventh – came last year, and he has improved in each of his four outings on his home state road course.

Photo Credits: usatoday.com, foxsports.com

1 comment:

  1. And nothing about Montoya? 3 NASCAR wins on road courses.