Twists and turns, ups and downs, fuel mileage and wine – all will come into play this weekend at Infineon Raceway for the Cup Series. But this weekend’s race filled with left and right turns can really play havoc on fantasy teams where owners are limited to only live drivers and no bench. Road courses can really tax a team who has been running well but has one or two drivers who are not successful at them. On the other hand, if your team is in trouble, this weekend will offer a chance for you to take a big swing by putting some road-course ringers or drivers who are not on active rosters onto your team for the weekend.
But you’ve got to be careful. Some drivers you might not associate with road racing actually have good numbers at Sonoma, and some others you might think could be good may surprise you with how subpar they really are. To get the best choices for drivers who will be the prime vintage this weekend, read on to see who the experts chose this week in Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
One year ago, hotshot rookie Juan Pablo Montoya became the first foreign driver since Earl Ross in 1974 to be victorious in a Sprint Cup Series race, winning the fuel-mileage battle in the Toyota Save Mart 350 at Infineon. Jamie McMurray, who sat on the pole and led 30 laps, was in position to score his first win for Roush Fenway Racing at the time when Montoya passed him for the lead in a furious battle on lap 104. McMurray proceeded to run out of gas, finishing 37th and ruining his chances to steal the win.
That honor went to Montoya instead, as he spoiled what was otherwise a banner day for Richard Childress Racing: Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer finished second, third and fourth, respectively. Robby Gordon, who started on the outside of the front row, led the most laps but got bitten by fuel mileage late, finishing a disappointing 16th. The road ringers had a decent day: Boris Said finished ninth, PJ Jones 12th and Ron Fellows 15th.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Sonoma is the true definition of a “hardcore” road course. Unlike Watkins Glen, there are several technical sections on this track that give the drivers with road-racing talent the opportunity to exploit the drivers who have not proven themselves turning right and left. But because most of these men are oval drivers first, road racers second, there aren’t many organizations that have a lock on road-course success.
The best bet would – shockingly enough – be Penske. Both of their primary drivers are in the top-10 best average finishers for drivers who have run more than three races at Infineon, and the other team to consider is RCR considering their drivers finished 2-3-4 in last year’s race. Similar to last week’s race, fuel mileage can always play a role in the outcome of races on a road course; but barring that, the drivers who are notoriously good on road courses will be the most likely victors at the end of the day on Sunday.
Crank ‘Em Up
Jeff Gordon is the acknowledged king of road courses in Cup level racing. He has five wins and seven top-five finishes in 10 races at Infineon. Last year, after being forced to sit out practice and qualifying and made to start at the rear of the field, he still finished seventh. That was the first time the new car configuration was used on the track, and it speaks volumes about Gordon’s abilities to take a backup car onto a track for the first time and race through the field for a top-10 finish. It’s a very safe bet that he will shake off his recent bad performances and bring home a solid top-five run this weekend.
Harvick has only finished outside of the top 15 twice in seven races in Sonoma. While he’s never won there, he’s completed all but one lap in his Cup career and finished second last year. Harvick started off strong, but has had one top-10 finish since Bristol. His team has been running better the last couple of weeks and this weekend very well could be the time for him to step up and get back into the top five.
Sit ‘Em Down
David Ragan is the surprise driver of the 2008 season and sits 10 points outside of the top 12. That is the good news; but the bad news is that Ragan is not a road course racer. He’s never had a top-10 finish on a road course in Cup or Nationwide and his only race at Sonoma ended with a 29th-place finish. So, while Ragan may surprise with a decent finish this weekend, the odds are against him.
Kasey Kahne is without a doubt one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. He has two wins and a second in the last four points paying races, and also won the All-Star event to put on an exhibition. Unfortunately for Kahne, there are only left turns on those tracks. In his history in Cup, Kahne has three tracks where he has never scored a top 10. Besides Chicago, the other two tracks are Watkins Glen and Sonoma.
While his team has certainly turned the corner and has been hot lately, road-course racing is not Kahne’s forte. Its best to leave him on the bench this weekend and wait for them to start running in circles again before you bring him back out for your team.
Roll the Dice
Robby Gordon has won three races in his Cup career, and two of those wins are on road courses. Last year, Gordon was the car to beat at Infineon, but that was all undone by fuel mileage. There is no doubt that picking the only owner/driver on the circuit is a bit of a risk, but Gordon has proven over time that he can run very well on road courses, and his success at Infineon last year deserves a shot this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up:
There is an ongoing debate as to whether the road ringers that have populated NASCAR’s road races are still viable contenders to win a Cup race in the era of the CoT. Well, at least one of them is. Said has scored more points over the last five races at Sonoma than any other Cup driver, and he’s finished outside the top 10 only once since 2003.
Plus, Said has an advantage over the other road ringers in that he is working with his own race team. He’s raced with the No. 60 crew before, and has more stock car starts than any of his fellow ringers. Said is a fully capable stock car driver, and his footwork on the road courses is a show in itself. Said is hungry after his troubles at Daytona and Mexico City; he’s racing for the win, and he will be contending for it on Sunday.
Tony Stewart ran strong at Michigan, and is entering the summer stretch that he has owned in Sprint Cup Series competition. Stewart’s results at Sonoma are stellar, including two wins and eight top-15 finishes in nine starts on the tricky California road course. Having Joe Gibbs Racing equipment under him won’t hurt either. Stewart is arguably the most talented road racer among the Sprint Cup regulars, and he will again be a force to be reckoned with. Stewart is a no-brainer for all fantasy gamers this Sunday.
Sit ‘Em Down
Matt Kenseth will be racing for the trophy at Sonoma this weekend, but deep down he may well settle for a top 10. Why? Because he’s never gotten one at Sonoma. Kenseth has never seemed to get the hang of the twisty turns of Sonoma, struggling at the track even during his 2003 Cup title winning run. Kenseth and his team have made up a lot of ground over the last few weeks and have catapulted back into Chase contention. They will break into the top 12 soon, but not this weekend. Fantasy gamers have been riding Kenseth hard of late, give him some time to cool.
Another driver on a red-hot streak of late has been Brian Vickers. And, like Kenseth, Vickers hasn’t enjoyed success of any kind at Sonoma. In fact, the track has been downright harsh to Vickers. His average finish is a very drab 23.3 in three Cup starts, with only one top-20 finish. Vickers has managed to qualify in the top 30 only once, meaning he is likely to start in the back and be mired in traffic from the first turn on.
Perhaps worst of all is how much Vickers and his No. 83 team has struggled with road racing. Last season, they finished 41st at Watkins Glen, and failed to even qualify at Sonoma. Granted, the No. 83 team has improved drastically, but Vickers will have a hard time conveying his recent success on intermediate tracks to the turns of Sears Point. There are far safer bets out there this weekend.
Roll the Dice
One of the most underrated road racers in Sprint Cup is now one of its most talked-about free agents. Ryan Newman has scored an impressive average finish of 9.8 in his six career starts at Sonoma, including a runner-up finish in 2006 and four top 10s overall. Sonoma has also been one of Newman’s most consistent tracks; he’s never finished outside the top 20 there.
But, though Newman has performed well, what is going on with the No. 12 off the track is perhaps more important. Newman has publicly made it clear that if the No. 12 doesn’t perform better now, he will not be back with Penske Racing in 2009. With Daytona on the horizon, the No. 12 team will be pulling out all the stops to get Newman and Penske Racing back to the front, and Sonoma is a track they can accomplish it at. Beware fantasy gamers, the Rocketman may cometh this weekend.
Bryan: Well Mike, this week I picked the winner instead of benching him. I see you’ve got Jeff Gordon breaking out of his slump this weekend; What’s going to help the No. 24?
Mike: Yes, you did brother. Congratulations on the win, along with the sixth-place finish. As far as this week goes, Jeff can always make up for inadequacies with his road-racing talent. He is the king of road racing in Cup and he’ll shake off his recent doldrums this weekend. I was surprised to see you’d give a ringer a crank ’em up slot.
Bryan: Said’s kind of his own category of ringer. He is a road-race specialist in a part-time effort, but he’s more familiar with stock cars than other ringers. He’s worked with the No. 60 car and crew before, but most important are results – one pole and four top 10s in the last five Sonoma races. The win has eluded him, but good points days have not. Good points days have not eluded Kahne lately either, yet you’re benching him. I took that risk and it bit me at Pocono, what makes it different at Sonoma?
Mike: I tend to think road courses take a little different technique than Pocono. There are always fluke weekends when someone who normally doesn’t do well on road courses can sneak up and post a good finish, but for the most part, if a driver isn’t good on road courses, he is not going to finish much higher than he normally does. Your Vickers pick surprised me a little. I thought his former open-wheel experience might give him a shot at some success this weekend. You don’t think so?
Bryan: Vickers’s Cup career hasn’t exactly been bountiful at Sonoma. He’s only averaged a 23rd-place finish at the track, has qualified in the Top 35 only once and missed the race in the No. 83 last year. I see him starting in the back and staying there, which isn’t what I see happening with Robby Gordon – give potential sponsors out there the pitch for starting the No. 7.
Mike: There’s never been any question about Robby’s road-racing capabilities. He had the car to beat last year and lost out on a fuel-mileage deal. He was also fifth at Watkins Glen in the new car design last year. It is a safe bet that, as long as he doesn’t do something foolish, he’ll be very near the front and possibly win this weekend. I see you put some faith in Newman. He’s a surprisingly good road racer that flies mostly under the radar. You think he’s going to shake off his recent bad luck and post a good finish this weekend?
Bryan: As a Newman fan, I’m trying to keep the faith. The stats are encouraging – Newman has an average finish of 9.8 in six starts there, including a runner-up in 2006, and has never finished outside the top 20 at Sonoma. He delivered an ultimatum to Penske Racing to improve or he’d leave, so here’s hoping they put a good No. 12 under him for a change.
Mike: It is going to be an interesting weekend to say the least. I’m sure some folks will be surprised that we didn’t give any love to McMurray after his run last year. We may regret that come Sunday, but I guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 9.0
Sit – 24.5
Roll – 17.7
Crank – 9.5
Sit – 22.5
Roll – 20.3
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