Sonoma: Get Ready To Throw A Few Rights
Turning right in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition generally gets a competitor a date with a Safer Barrier. But not this week, when the series visits 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway in California for the 2013 season’s first road course event.
Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. EDT on TNT, Performance Racing Network Radio and SiriusXM Satellite Radio) marks the 25th time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has appeared at the track located just north of San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate.
NASCAR Sprint Cup teams go “off the oval” just twice a year – Watkins Glen International hosts its event in August – but both events have become must-see affairs thanks to two-abreast restarts on narrow, undulating track surfaces producing plenty of fender-on-door competition.
The storylines for Sunday’s race are many – and don’t always mirror those of a normal NASCAR Sprint Cup weekend.
- · Sunday’s race will be the first for NASCAR’s Gen-6 car.
Richard Petty Motorsports’ two drivers, Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola, participated in a May test at Sonoma. The team has a single victory at the track with Kasey Kahne in 2009.
“We’re happy with the progress, but we would love to be faster always,” said Ambrose, the series’ most consistent road racer over the past five years with seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes – but still seeking his first Sonoma victory. “We’re confident that we’ve learned a lot and we’ll come back with a better package in June.”
- · Group qualifying debuts.
Single-car qualifying on road courses will be shelved this week and later this summer at The Glen. Instead, cars will be assigned to one of five or six groups based on practice speeds, slowest to fastest.
Within those groups, cars will be separated fastest to slowest and released at intervals. Each group will have a window in which cars can complete their qualifying – each likely receiving three laps at full speed.
A car’s fastest lap will count and the field will be set based upon overall qualifying speeds.
The process has been used previously for NASCAR Nationwide Series road course qualifications.
- · Success vs. survival
The list of Sonoma winners includes some of NASCAR’s most decorated competitors including NASCAR Hall of Fame members Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace. Six Sprint Cup champions have won at the track. Points leader Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon won at Sonoma in championship seasons – Johnson the most recent in 2010.
Last year’s winner, Clint Bowyer, finished second in final points standings.
Gordon is Sonoma’s all-time winner with five victories. There have been no repeat winners in the past eight Sonoma races.
Conversely, how a driver does – or doesn’t do – didn’t have a dramatic effect on the most recent Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™. Seven of the 12 post-season finalists failed to score a top-10 finish at Sonoma in 2012.
- · Danica Patrick makes history – again.
No female driver has competed in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway. Patrick will be the first although the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet has a significant body of work at the track. She has seven starts in the IndyCar Series with a best finish of fifth among three top 10s.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who leads Patrick by four points in Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, likewise is a Sonoma Sprint Cup novice. The two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion has a best road racing finish of fourth in last year’s Nationwide Glen event.
- · “Ringers” don’t often ring the bell
Road racing specialists – often dubbed “ringers” – fit the category of many being called; few if any answering. Mark Donohue was the last such competitor to score a NASCAR premier series road race victory on Jan. 21, 1973 at Riverside International Raceway.
Canadian Ron Fellows heads the list of such drivers vying for a spot in Sunday’s race. Fellows, who’ll drive Joe Falk’s No. 33 Chevrolet, has made 23 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts with a pair of second-place finishes at Watkins Glen his best performances. With six NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck victories, Fellows could become the 24th to sweep all three national series – and first to do it with road race wins.
Once Out of Sight, Out Of Mind, Stewart Now In Chase Position
It’s not exactly “worst to first,” but it sure is close.
Over the first 11 races, when Tony Stewart dipped to as low as 24th in the points standings, the three-time series champion earned an average of 23 points per race. Over the last four races, all of which have been top-10 finishes, he has averaged 41 points per race.
Stewart’s 180-degree turn has him in the top 10 in points for the first time this season, a position which seemed highly unlikely only three weeks.
And now, sitting 10th in points, Stewart looks destined for a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and a chance at a fourth series championship that would tie him for fourth on the all-time list with Jeff Gordon.
In his 15-year career, Stewart has now been the top 10 in points after 15 races 11 times. The lowest he’s been after 15 years was 12th. His average points position after 15: 7.5.
Perusing the upcoming schedule, there’s little to suggest Stewart’s rapid climb up the standings will slow.
Up next: Sonoma Raceway, where Stewart has two victories (to go along with five at Watkins Glen, the second of two road-course races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule).
In three weeks, Stewart will run the Daytona night race, an event at which he has four wins. Then New Hampshire (three wins) and Indianapolis (two wins). The only possible stumbling block is Kentucky in two weeks, where Stewart has an average finish of 22.0 in two starts.
Sunoco Rookie Of The Year Leaders Have Similar Stats
Some of NASCAR’s brightest premier series stars have won rookie of the year honors including NASCAR Hall of Fame members Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace.
The competition is based upon a points system separate from overall NASCAR Sprint Cup standings with candidates effectively racing against each other. Only their best 17 finishes are counted with bonuses added on a sliding scale for top 10 overall finishes; end of season series points ranking and the judgment of a special panel on overall on- and off-track performance.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the current leader having scored 160 points. Danica Patrick is four points behind with Timmy Hill, who has competed in eight races, third.
On paper, there is little to differentiate Stenhouse, driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford and Patrick, who competes in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. Patrick has the edge in best finish – eighth at Daytona after becoming the first female pole winner in Daytona 500 history – while Stenhouse scores on consistency.
Stenhouse is still in pursuit of his first top-10 finish but edges Patrick in top 15s by a five to three count. The two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion has 10 lead lap finishes – including the most recent three races – to Patrick’s four. Stenhouse, whose best qualifying position is third at Kansas, has led three races for a total of 29 laps to Patrick’s one for five laps.
Going Streaking: Logano, Harvick Climb Points On Strength Of Streaks
Much has been trumpeted about Tony Stewart’s current four-race top-10 streak that has launched him from outside the top 20 to his current 10th-place points position.
But two other drivers have assembled lengthy streaks of their own, and have done it in quiet fashion: Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.
With five consecutive top-10 finishes, Harvick boasts the longest active top-10 streak in the series. Included among that group is his win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and last week’s runner-up finish at Michigan. Harvick’s streak has moved him from outside Chase contention (he was 12th after a 40th place finish at Talladega), to his current standing inside the top five (he leapfrogged Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan, and now sits fourth).
Enjoying a four-race top-10 streak, Logano’s first season with Penske Racing has thus far been a prosperous one. He has already scored more top fives (four) and top 10s (seven) than any of his previously four seasons through 15 races.
His recent surge has catapulted him from 19th in the points to his current 14th-place position, and has put him within earshot of the top 10. He currently sits 12 points behind 10th-place Tony Stewart.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
Three drivers will attempt to make their first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start on Sunday at Sonoma: Alex Kennedy, Victory Gonzalez Jr. and Paulie Harraka. The last time three or more drivers made their debut in the same race was at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 24, 2004 when Chad Chaffin, Mario Gosselin and Travis Kvapil all made their debut. … Brian Vickers returns to the seat of the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. He finished fourth at Sonoma last year.
Smith Increases Points Lead At Michigan, Makes First Trip To Road America
There is always a first time for everything. This Saturday, the NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader Regan Smith will make his first start at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., in the Johnsonville Sausage 200 Presented by Menards.
Although he has never competed at the 4.05-mile road course in 116 series starts, he has raced four times on road courses in the NNS: twice at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City and twice at Watkins Glen International in New York. His finishes haven’t exactly been storybook; he has an average finishing position of 23.25 and has never led a lap, however, he’s finished on the lead lap in all four events.
Before the last race of 2012, Smith hadn’t competed in the series since 2007 when he ran a partial schedule for Ginn Racing. Last year, the Cato, N.Y., native sat behind the wheel of one of JR Motorsports’ Chevrolets for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his first race in the series in five years. However, it was like he had never left, as he held off Kyle Busch in the closing laps to secure the victory.
That momentum has certainly carried over into 2013 with Smith winning two of the first 13 races (Talladega, Michigan). His Talladega victory propelled him into the points lead over Sam Hornish Jr., who held the lead after each of the first seven races.
Going into last Saturday’s Michigan race, Smith’s lead was a healthy 23 points over Hornish. By the end of the night, Smith had increased it to a 58-point advantage. That margin might be threatened this weekend at Road America, where Hornish finished fifth last year in his only start at the road course.
Smith, however, has been firing on all cylinders lately as he rides a streak of 11 consecutive top-10 finishes into Road America.
The First Of Three Road Courses Is An Unfamiliar Test
Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., marks the first of three road courses on the NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule and could provide a look into how drivers will perform in the other two: Watkins Glen International and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, both in August.
The biggest test for many of the drivers regarding Road America is their unfamiliarity with the track. There are currently 14 drivers vying for a spot in the starting field who have never competed in any of the series’ three events there. Another 14 drivers have only competed there once in the series.
The 14 drivers without previous Road America starts are AJ Allmendinger, Alex Bowman, James Buescher, Landon Cassill, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Mike Harmon, Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson, Johnny O’Connell, Travis Pastrana, Regan Smith, Dexter Stacey, Brian Vickers and Derek White.
The NNS has run three races at Road America and each time a different driver has celebrated in Victory Lane.
In the series’ inaugural visit to the 4.05-mile road course in 2010, Carl Edwards bested road-course specialist Ron Fellows. The next season, Reed Sorenson was out in front of Fellows when the race ended under caution. Last year, Nelson Piquet Jr. started on the pole and held off Michael McDowell and Fellows to take the checkers.
Road Racing Brings Out The “Ringers”
The most challenging aspect of Saturday’s Johnsonville Sausage 200 Presented by Menards at Road America for the NASCAR Nationwide Series regulars might not be the facility’s 14 challenging turns, but rather the road-course specialists that are racing alongside them.
These specialists are adept at turning left … and right, and are often challenging for the win at the few road courses that dot the national series’ schedules. For instance, all 24 of Ron Fellows’ starts in the NNS have come at road courses, including Road America where he has three top-three finishes in three starts.
Although Fellows is not entered in this weekend’s race, there are as many as nine road-course “ringers” currently slated to attempt to make the starting field. The list of drivers includes AJ Allmendinger, Kenny Habul, Billy Johnson, Kyle Kelley, Owen Kelly, Michael McDowell, Max Papis, Derek White and John Young.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.
A trust fund has been created to help care for five-year-old Charlie Dean Leffler, whose father, Jason Leffler, died June 12, when his sprint car struck a wall at a New Jersey dirt track. Donations in Jason’s memory can be made to the Charlie Dean Leffler Discretionary Trust. … A memorial service for Leffler will be held Wednesday, June 19at Grace Covenant Church in Cornelius, N.C. … Four-time 24 Hours of Le Mans class winner and 2001 Rolex 24 At Daytona overall winner Johnny O’Connell will qualify in the No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet for his NASCAR national touring series debut this Saturday at Road America. … Two-time NASCAR Canadian Tire Series champion Andrew Ranger (2007, 2009) will attempt to qualify for his first NNS start of 2013, his 15th overall.
Kentucky Might Cure Buescher’s Blues Next Week
While he hasn’t had the results he or his team have expected this season, defending NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion James Buescher is ready to get back to Kentucky Speedway.
Although Buescher has had fast trucks in almost every event he hasn’t been able to get the finishes in his No. 31 Chevrolet that he or his team expects week in and week out.
“For obvious reasons, I’m really excited about returning to Kentucky, I don’t think it could come at a better time for our Turner Scott Motorsports team,” Buescher said. “We’ve had some great runs going all year; we just haven’t had the luck with the finishes that we were looking for.”
Buescher swept both truck races at Kentucky last year en route to a four-win season and the 1.5-mile speedway could help Buescher get back on track in defending his title. The Katy, Texas native is hoping a successful weekend in Texas (a ninth-place finish) is just what the team needs as they prepare to head into the second half of the season.
“With winning both Kentucky races last year, I think that will help our confidence and give us some momentum to get our championship run back on track by putting our truck back in Victory Lane,” he added. In addition to his two back-to-back wins last year at Kentucky, Buescher has five top-10 showings in six career NCWTS starts at the track.
Buescher will compete in Saturday’s Johnsonville Sausage 200, his 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series debut.
Dillon Hopes To Carry Texas Momentum Forward
Not many drivers are happy to finish second in a race in which they led the most laps and ran strong throughout, but Ty Dillon will gladly take his runner-up finish at Texas Motor Speedway last week and carry that momentum with him to Kentucky in two weeks.
“The No. 3 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet team did a really good job in Texas,” Dillon said. “We had a fast truck and led a lot of laps. If we had another corner, I think we could have brought home a win. I really wanted to get that cowboy hat in victory lane, but we have a good stack of notes to go back there with in November. We’re going to carry that momentum over to Kentucky (Speedway) next week.
The second-year truck driver, who finished third in both Kentucky races last year, heads to the UNOH 225 eager to pick up his second career win and move back into the top five in the standings.
“The last two races there we’ve finished in the top five and that gives me and my team a lot of confidence going into the race,” he added. “We know what’s fast there, and I know how to get around the track. We just have to put everything together and work hard to bring home a win.”
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
This week will be one to remember for Ron Hornaday Jr. and Series Director Chad Little. Both men with be inducted in to the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame during a ceremony Thursday night at The Meritage in Napa, Calif. Occasional NCWTS driver and owner Derrike Cope also is among the five 2013 inductees. … Although he doesn’t compete in his truck for another week, Brennan Newberry is taking advantage of his time off to get a little road course experience in advance of the race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park on Sept. 1. He will participate in Saturday’s K&N Pro Series West Carneros 200 at Sonoma Raceway as well as attending Ron Fellows’ driving school. … Next race for the series is the June 27 UNOH 225 at Kentucky Speedway.
K&N Headlines: Busy Week For Touring Series
Four NASCAR regional touring series will be in action this coming week, highlighted by the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West joining the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Sonoma Raceway for the Carneros 200 on Saturday, June 22.
The K&N Pro Series West has a long and distinguished history at the famed northern California road course with 32 previous events there since 1969, including 23-stand along races and nine combination races with the Sprint Cup Series. Cup regular David Gilliland is the defending winner of this race.
NASCAR Next driver Michael Self brings a hot streak into the Carneros 200. With three straight victories – including a road course win at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway – Self has surged into the K&N Pro Series West points lead after five races. The lead is the slimmest of margins, however, as Derek Thorn trails Self by a single point.
Sonoma race weekend also includes the annual West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame Induction and Dinner, and this year’s class will have plenty of ties to the K&N Pro Series West as four of the inductees – drivers Derrike Cope, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Chad Little, and car owner Randy Lynch – experienced success competing in the West Series.
Also in action this Saturday will be the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Va., the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series presented by Mobil 1 at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park oval in Bowmanville, Ont., and the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour at Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
- Next Race: Toyota-Save Mart 350
- The Place: Sonoma Raceway
- The Date: Sunday, June 23
- The Time: 3 p.m. (ET)
- TV: TNT, 2 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: PRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 350 Kilometers (110 laps)
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES
- Next Race: Johnsonville Sausage 200 Presented by Menards
- The Place: Road America
- The Date: Saturday, June 22
- The Time: 5 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ESPN, 5 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 202.4 miles (50 laps)
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES
- Next Race: UNOH 225
- The Place: Kentucky Speedway
- The Date: Friday, June 27
- The Time: 8 p.m. (ET)
- TV: SPEED, 7:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 225 miles (150 laps)