WHEN: June 24, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 3:19 p.m. ET
TRACK DESCRIPTION: 1.99-mile road course
BROADCAST: TNT | RACE LENGTH: 110 laps, 219 miles
This week, only three of the top 10 in points have one of the 10 best average finishes during the past three years at Sonoma. The same will almost certainly be true when the series rolls into Watkins Glen later in the summer, and yet this week's top 10 is not filled with road ringers. Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya come closest to being specialists, but they are both currently in the top 20 in points.
While road-racing skills do not determine the championship, it could help decide who gets to compete in the Chase. Jeff Gordon, A.J. Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards are all outside the top 10 in the standings and currently winless. They -- along with Ambrose and Montoya -- have superior records at Sonoma and desperately need the victory this week in order to stake a possible claim to the wild-card spot.
Ambrose, Montoya, Edwards and Allmendinger will also be counted among the 10 best at Watkins Glen over the past three years, so it is not inconceivable that a driver could sweep the road courses and use that as his sole avenue into the Chase.
|10 best drivers at Sonoma|
Over the past three races at Sonoma, these drivers have the best average finish.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 4.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 14.70 in 10 attempts
Johnson is not the first driver who comes to mind when fans think about road courses, but his three-year average at Sonoma tells an entirely different story. Anchored by a victory in 2010, he is riding a three-race top-10 streak and he is one of only three drivers in this week's field who can make that claim. His supremacy might not last for long, however, because his first seven races on this track resulted in only one top five, another top 10 and an average finish of 19.3. Even his victory requires some explanation. He inherited the lead that afternoon when Marcos Ambrose stalled his car on an uphill segment of the track and Johnson needed to keep the field at bay for only a handful of laps at the end.
2. Marcos Ambrose
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 4.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 14.00 in 4 attempts
If not for a broken transmission in his inaugural attempt in 2008 after he was punted from behind in the hairpin, Ambrose would have a perfect record of top 10s. In fact, he might have a perfect record of top fives if he had not stalled his car in 2010, but even in that race he made up a handful of positions in the final laps and finished sixth. The Tasmanian Devil is riding high after last week's performance at Michigan. Winning the pole on that newly repaved track is going to make him the fastest man in NASCAR for a long time and that is more than simply bragging rights; it is a place in the record books. Ambrose was one mistake away from claiming the top prize at Sonoma two years ago and he has a victory at the Glen last year. He could sweep the road courses this season and make his way into the Chase.
3. Jeff Gordon
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 5.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 8.68 in 19 attempts
It is uncertain what ill fate awaits Gordon at Sonoma, but if the first 15 races of the season have taught us anything, it's that this team is prone to mistakes and bad luck. The No. 24 has run well enough to finish in the top 10 in nearly every race this season, but so far none of their four single-digit results have been backed up with another. For that reason, his sixth-place finish in the Quicken Loans 400 is little more than a curiosity unless he can repeat this week. Gordon's Sonoma record would suggest a top 10 is not only possible, but probable. He enters the weekend with a six-race streak of top 10s that includes his record-extending fifth victory (no one else active or inactive has more than two), but that is absolutely meaningless in light of his poor 2012 productivity.
4. Kasey Kahne
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 8.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 23.00 in 8 attempts
Like Johnson, Kahne is another improbable leader at Sonoma. He is also one of the examples of why handicapping NASCAR races is so difficult. Entering the 2009 Toyota/SaveMart 350k, he had not cracked the top 10 on either road course in 10 attempts. Only two of his efforts resulted in top 15s, so anyone overlooking his potential that afternoon could be excused. Kahne had shown a little strength one year earlier by winning the pole, but he slipped to 33rd in the final rundown, which was his fourth result of 30th or worse in five Sonoma starts. Kahne put those numbers out of his mind and ran strong throughout the day and in a seesaw battle that often defines road courses, he was on top when it counted. In 2010, he followed that up with another top five. Unfortunately, those are his only top 10s in 16 combined starts on NASCAR's two road courses.
5. A.J. Allmendinger
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 11.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 23.80 in 5 attempts
With his background in CART and the Toyota Atlantic series, Allmendinger might have the same type of numbers as Ambrose and Montoya if he had been in stronger cars. His Red Bull ride did not offer many opportunities to run with the leaders and Richard Petty Motorsports was still building its equipment and setup notes when he raced there. He won't have any excuses this week, however, because he is competing with the same team that won this race last year and finished second at the Glen in 2010. While he hasn't been stellar on road courses, he hasn't been bad either and he will be one of the featured 10 at the Glen later this year. He has to stay out of trouble to capitalize, however, and that has been the Achilles heel of Allmendinger all season.
6. Juan Pablo Montoya
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 12.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 9.00 in 5 attempts
Montoya is undoubtedly one of the best road-course racers in NASCAR. He won his first Nationwide Series race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in his first attempt there and backed that up with a victory in his first Cup road course race at Sonoma as a rookie in 2007. In 2010, he added another victory at Watkins Glen and has one other top five on that track. He lacks the patience and his team lacks the strategy to consistently finish that well, however. While Montoya has eight top 10s in 10 combined starts at Sonoma and the Glen, only three of these were top fives and most of the times he failed to finish that well, he ran much stronger during the race than the final tally showed.
7. Kevin Harvick
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 13.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 16.09 in 11 attempts
In 2010, Harvick scored his third top-three finish at Sonoma. He finished third in 2003, finished runner-up to Montoya in 2007 and finished third again in 2010, but there had to be a little nervousness entering this race last year. In his two previous efforts, he failed to back his top five with a top 10 and his 2007 race was bracketed by four results of 24th or worse. If he had not finished in the top 10 last year, his 29th-place finish in 2009 would drop him well down the order, but now it appears he is one of the strongest road racers in the field. Harvick's recent record at the Glen confirms that notion, since he finished 11th in 2010 and sixth last year to claim a current four-race top-15 streak on this track type.
8. Clint Bowyer
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 14.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 11.17 in 6 attempts
Bowyer is another surprisingly strong road-course racer. There is very little in his background on dirt that could have prepared him for the art of turning right and left, but like many teenagers, he probably honed his skill on the country roads surrounding his hometown of Emporia, Kan. Whatever the reason, he got off to a solid start at Sonoma with a 16th-place finish in his first attempt and he has been practically unstoppable since. His next two efforts in 2007-08 ended in fourth-place results, he finished eighth in 2009 and was fourth again last year. There is always one surprise top-five finisher, and at Sonoma that is most often Bowyer. If he finishes fourth again this year, fans are going to have to stop being shocked.
9. Jamie McMurray
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 14.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 16.89 in 9 attempts
McMurray owes his place in the top 10 this week to consistency. His past three Sonoma efforts have ended in one 14th- and two 15th-place results. Two of his previous four attempts ended in 18ths, with another result of 13th tossed in for good measure. It is easy to imagine about where he will cross under the checkers this week. If all goes well, however, McMurray is capable of finishing inside the top 10; in his second effort on this track during his first stint with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2004 he finished in the runner-up position and he had a third at the Glen in 2006 racing for Jack Roush.
10. Carl Edwards
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 15.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 16.57 in 7 attempts
A win would go a long way toward solidifying Edwards' position in the Chase. He currently sits only two points behind 10th-place Brad Keselowski and he would leapfrog his way into contention. Should he slip out of the top 10 again, he would have the victory to fall back on to help claim a wild-card berth. Winning is not entirely out of the question. Edwards has improved on road courses in recent years and three of his past five efforts at Sonoma and the Glen ended in top-fives. He also has a pole at the Glen from 2010. If strength doesn't carry him into the top 10, consistency might. In 14 combined races on road courses, Edwards has failed to finish on the lead lap only once and that came in his inaugural attempt as a rookie at Sonoma after he suffered crash damage.
OTHERS OF NOTE
12. Tony Stewart
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 16.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 11.54 in 13 attempts
Stewart is regarded as one of the top road-course racers in the field, and he would be counted among the top 10 if not for last year's Toyota/Save Mart 350k. He raised the ire of self-proclaimed sheriff Brian Vickers midway through the race and the driver of the No. 83 decided to take the law into his own hands. Vickers bushwhacked Stewart entering the final hairpin and hung the No. 14 from the tire-barrier. Before that incident, Stewart entered the weekend with a four-race streak of top 10s and his two Sonoma victories are as good as anyone in the field other than Jeff Gordon.
14. Greg Biffle
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 19.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 15.78 in 9 attempts
None of the top three in points have much to recommend them at Sonoma, but Biffle comes closest. While both Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have long streaks of results outside the top 10 on road courses, the driver of the No. 16 finished seventh on this meandering course in 2010, which was his second consecutive top 10 on this track type. Unfortunately, that is also the last time he has finished that well on either road course and his best result in the past year and a half was a 24th. It is difficult to lose a lap on a road course and not get the free pass or wave around, so Biffle's incomplete Heluva Good! Dips at the Glen last August stands out like a sore thumb and should give his fans a sleepless night or two.
19. Matt Kenseth
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 20.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 21.50 in 12 attempts
Kenseth's last road-course top 10 came four years ago at Infineon. He finished eighth, which tied his career-best road-course result first set at the Glen in 2003. While he hasn't improved on this track type, he has at least been consistent with five of his past six races ending in a narrow band from 12th through 18th. Last year, both of his road-course efforts produced 14th-place results and if he matches that, he should able to retain the points lead. Kenseth enters the weekend with a six-race streak of top 10s from Talladega through Michigan, but he will need a little luck to carry that momentum into Kentucky.
21. Brad Keselowski
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 22.50 in 2 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 22.50 in 2 attempts
Keselowski has a trend on road courses that will end with him in Victory Lane this week if it continues. In four starts, he has improved every result by huge increments. His first road-course effort ended in a 35th-place result, when he crashed and failed to finish eight laps from the end of the 2010 Toyota/Save Mart 350k. He improved by 15 spots to finish 20th at the Glen later that year, and then improved by half to finish 10th in last year's Sonoma race. At the Glen in August he finished second, which means there is only one position left to improve. Unfortunately, similarly strong and surprising records at Pocono and Michigan last fall failed to give him the momentum to run well on those tracks this year, so a victory is still a long shot.
24. Martin Truex Jr.
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 25.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 21.67 in 6 attempts
Before last year, Truex had two road-course top 10s to his credit, but neither of those came at Sonoma. That wasn't much of a surprise because his earliest road-course efforts came on the New York track since the family team was based on the East Coast. Before ascending to the Cup Series, he had three Nationwide and three NASCAR Grand National Busch North series attempts there, with a top five in each of those divisions. Last year's eighth-place finish in Sonoma may have come as a bit of a surprise, but if he backs it up this week there are plenty of indications that will have predicted a strong run. In addition to his Sonoma showing in 2011, he finished 15th in 2010 and fourth last year at the Glen, which gives him a three-race top-15 streak on road courses.
25. Denny Hamlin
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 25.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 20.83 in 6 attempts
Hamlin's reversal of fortune on road courses was swift and dramatic. In his first eight starts at Sonoma and Watkins Glen combined, he scored six top 10s, another 12th-place result and never failed to finish on the lead lap. His past four efforts have been brutal. He crashed in both road-course races in 2010, broke a rear end in last year's Toyota/Save Mart 350k and crashed again in the 2011 Heluva Good! Dips at the Glen. He has not only failed to finish on the lead lap a single time in the past two years, the closest he came was with a 34th-place finish, seven laps off the pace at Sonoma in 2010.
26. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last three races average finish at Sonoma: 26.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Sonoma: 22.17 in 12 attempts
Junior Nation was rewarded for its steadfast devotion last week with a victory in the Quicken Loans 400. The fans need to hang onto that good feeling and file it away for a week, because it is extremely unlikely that the No. 88 is going to keep his current four-race top-10 streak alive. The last time he finished that well on a road course was in 2005 at Watkins Glen and it is not as if strong runs were prevalent before then. The last time Junior finished in the top 10 at Sonoma was, well, never. He came close three times with 11th-place results in 2003, 2004 and 2010, but his career average of 22.2 makes this his third-worst track. Equally discouraging is the fact that one of the two tracks that are even worse is the other road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
|All Drivers: Last three races at Sonoma|
|Driver||Avg. finish (attempts)||Driver||Avg. finish (attempts)|
|1. Jimmie Johnson||4.00 (3)||19. Matt Kenseth||20.67 (3)|
|2. Marcos Ambrose||4.67 (3)||20. David Gilliland||21.00 (3)|
|3. Jeff Gordon||5.33 (3)||21. Brad Keselowski||22.50 (2)|
|4. Kasey Kahne||8.33 (3)||22. Mark Martin||22.67 (3)|
|5. AJ Allmendinger||11.00 (3)||23. Kyle Busch||24.00 (3)|
|6. Juan Montoya||12.67 (3)||24. Martin Truex Jr.||25.00 (3)|
|7. Kevin Harvick||13.67 (3)||25. Denny Hamlin||25.33 (3)|
|8. Clint Bowyer||14.33 (3)||26. Dale Earnhardt Jr.||26.00 (3)|
|9. Jamie McMurray||14.67 (3)||26. Brian Vickers||26.00 (2)|
|10. Carl Edwards||15.00 (3)||28. Bobby Labonte||27.00 (3)|
|11. Kurt Busch||16.00 (3)||28. Regan Smith||27.00 (2)|
|12. Tony Stewart||16.67 (3)||30. Jeff Burton||27.33 (3)|
|13. Robby Gordon||18.67 (3)||31. Casey Mears||28.50 (2)|
|14. Ryan Newman||19.33 (3)||32. David Ragan||29.00 (3)|
|14. Greg Biffle||19.33 (3)||33. Scott Speed||33.00 (3)|
|14. Joey Logano||19.33 (3)||34. Dave Blaney||36.67 (3)|
|17. Boris Said||20.00 (3)||35. Joe Nemechek||40.00 (3)|
|17. Paul Menard||20.00 (3)||36. Brian Simo||41.33 (3)|
|Caution to the wind|
Most caution flags: 9 (1990 Banquet Frozen Foods 300k)
Fewest caution flags: 3 (2002 Dodge/SaveMart 350k, 1997 Save Mart 300k, 1992 Save Mart 300k, 1989 Banquet Frozen Foods 300k)
Average number of caution flags per race: 5.4
Final Caution, last five races:
June 2011: Lap 88 of 110 - 2-car accident in turn 11 (Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers).
June 2010: Lap 104 of 110 - 1-car spin in turn 7 (Brad Keselowski).
June 2009: Lap 110 of 113 - 1-car spin in turn 7 (Scott Speed).
June 2008: Lap 109 of 112 - 1-car accident in turn 2, with red flag period (Scott Pruett).
June 2007: Lap 68 of 110 - 1-car spin in turn 7 (Reed Sorenson).
Most caution laps: 26 (1999 Save Mart/Kragen 350k)
Fewest caution laps: 7 (1992 Save Mart 300k)
Average number of caution laps per race: 14.8
|Leading the way|
Most leaders: 10 (1998 Save Mart/Kragen 350k)
Fewest leaders: 3 (1989 Banquet Frozen Foods 300k)
Average number of leaders: 6.6
Most lead changes: 12 (2011 Toyota/Save Mart 350k, 2010 Toyota/SaveMart 350k)
Fewest lead changes: 3 (1989 Banquet Frozen Foods 300k)
Average number of lead changes: 8.3
Last five winners at Sonoma (starting position):
June 2011: Kurt Busch (11th)
June 2010: Jimmie Johnson (2nd)
June 2009: Kasey Kahne (5th)
June 2008: Kyle Busch (30th)
June 2007: Juan Pablo Montoya (32nd)
Worst starting position for race winner: 32nd -- Juan Pablo Montoya (June 2007)
A race at Sonoma has been won by the pole sitter 5 times and from the front row 8 times in 23 races.
|Active winners at Sonoma -- [total road-course wins]|
Jeff Gordon (5 at Sonoma) -- [9 overall]
Tony Stewart (2) -- 
Robby Gordon (1) -- 
Kyle Busch (1) -- 
Kurt Busch (1) -- 
Kasey Kahne (1) -- 
Juan Pablo Montoya (1) -- 
Jimmie Johnson (1) -- 
|First-time winners at Sonoma|
Juan Pablo Montoya: 2007 Toyota / Save Mart 350k
|Road courses: Sonoma vs. Watkins Glen (since 2009)|
NASCAR visits road courses only twice per year. Cup regulars don't have to excel on them, but they need to finish well enough to protect their points position. Here is where they finished on the two courses combined.
|Driver||Combined Avg.||Attempts||Sonoma||Watkins Glen|
|Juan Pablo Montoya||8.67||6||12.67||4.67|
|Martin Truex Jr||20.33||6||25.00||15.67|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr||26.33||6||26.00||26.67|
|Beaver's Best Bets for Sonoma|
Winner: Marcos Ambrose. The driver of the No. 9 has everything going his way for now and that momentum will give him focus. Don't look for another mistake like he made in 2010.
Dark horse top 10: Juan Pablo Montoya. This is a week to play it safe and the second-best road racer in the field is outside the top 10 in points and looking for a solid run.
Don't bet on it: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sonoma and Watkins Glen are two of Earnhardt's three worst tracks. He'll struggle to finish in the top 15 and a 20-something result is much more likely.
|Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10|
Turning both right and left is a skill most stock-car racers never have to develop. Getting the rhythm required to make all four limbs do something different is not an easy task, but some are naturals. This week's top 10 has a lot of fresh faces, but none of them are road ringers.
1. Marcos Ambrose
2. Jeff Gordon
3. Tony Stewart
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Clint Bowyer
6. Juan Pablo Montoya
7. Joey Logano
8. Kyle Busch
9. Joey Logano
10. Martin Truex Jr.
Blown engines and accidents are hard to predict and for the second consecutive week I was badly mauled by misfortune. Last week three of my top-10 picks lost power during the race (Trevor Bayne, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin), while two others crashed (Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin). Four of my remaining five picks finished among the top 10 as predicted.
For any driver correctly picked in the top 10, five points are awarded. For any driver picked in his exact finishing position, five bonus points are awarded. For correctly predicting the winner, a total of 20 points are awarded. So for a perfect top 10, a total of 110 points are available. One point is subtracted for each driver picked who finishes outside the top 10.
Total points for Michigan = 19 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)
Season best: 37 points (Charlotte, May); Season worst: 8 points (Pocono, June); Season avg.: 25.2 points (5 races)
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