It wasn’t many years ago that when heading into either one of the two road races during the Cup season only a handful of drivers would be mentioned about having a realistic shot for the victory. Even going into this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, many had their “favorites” to win and perhaps steal a Chase spot for championship contention late in the year. Once again, after Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350, all of those predictions did not mean a thing when Carl Edwards became the eighth straight first-time road course winner at the California facility.
That’s not to say some with past success in the style of racing did not have a chance. Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger were factors as expected, Kevin Harvick, with many of years of experience at the track, paced the field for a good portion of the race, and Jeff Gordon, out of the recently unbeatable Hendrick camp, nearly escaped with the victory. However, that increasingly extra push for drivers to perform, despite their preferences to turning exclusively left, has been extremely noticeable in recent years and has evolved into virtually anyone having at least some chance at the win.
The amount of time spent training drivers to be their best when it counts on Sunday comes in the form of road racing schools and supporting races. Five drivers competed in Saturday’s NASCAR K&N Pro Series West event at the track, with three of them finishing in the top 6, including Cup rookie Kyle Larson, who took the win in a supporting event for the second time in the last three weeks. Boris Said is among those that have instructed some of the finest on ovals how to navigate the courses to the point where they vastly outrun him on Sunday, and there are no widely competitive rides for him to drive in now. The days of road course ringers at the Cup level are long gone.
It is still slightly surprising, especially seeing the day before the amount of road course experts that had a chance at victory at Road America in the Nationwide event. Perhaps this growth has been due to the advent of the Chase, despite a road race not being a part of it currently, and not even being anticipated in the near future. This year it has become even more important with a spot in the season-ending championship being up for grabs, though. The recent dominance on the ovals among Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports certainly leaves fewer windows open. It’s almost like the finality of a Sonoma and Watkins Glen have become closer in similarity to Daytona and Talladega, without as much unpredictability or wrecked equipment.
In addition, it was overheard an abnormal amount of times how Sonoma is the short track of road courses, and as much as I did not agree with that going in, oddly enough the style of racing actually became the most similar to a Bristol or Martinsville with some flared tempers being evident. Who was it that won Bristol earlier in the year? Carl Edwards, and strategy played into his hands once again, even if it was just barely. Road courses used to be their own animal where a majority of the field hoped to survive and have a good points day. Not so much anymore. Every inch and every position is of utmost importance when it comes to the big picture.
The opportunity has also been given to those outside the latest pool of teams running for the win to have a shot. It has become obvious that some teams have hit on the new rules package and some have completely missed to this point. Very little of that mattered at Sonoma, and Roush Fenway Racing, a team that has mightily struggled as of late, came away with the win. An interesting statistic to point out is that coming into a stretch of the season where Chevrolet has typically excelled, a “bowtie” has not won the last seven road races on the schedule. The playing field gets leveled at a race like this one due to the homework the teams and drivers do to prepare and the aforementioned reduction of factors seen at the intermediate speedways.
The big question now is will the same be seen in August at Watkins Glen? The Finger Lakes facility does involve a little more finesse than Sonoma. Ambrose will once again enter as a favorite – and deserves to be – with wins there in 2011 and 2012. Nevertheless, I’m thinking we will see more of a repeat from Sonoma and maybe a little more of 2013 at Watkins Glen when Kyle Busch won, but several altercations near the end between those trying to get to that top spot and advance into the Chase tightened things up. It will be a time of more dire straits and someone who is not necessarily thought of as an immense road course expert may, as a result, end up on top once again.