With NASCAR's new Chase for the Sprint Cup Series format this season expanded to 16 drivers and all winners in the first 26 races earning an automatic berth the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday takes on even more importance. Especially for certain drivers who have excelled on the road courses in the past.
One driver in particular comes to mind and that is Marcos Ambrose. Amborse has never won at Sonoma but won at the other road course, Watkins Glen, in 2011 and 2012. In 2010 Ambrose was in position late in the race at Sonoma to win but stalled his car while leading under caution trying to save fuel. Ambrose's finishes at Sonoma the past five seasons were seventh, eighth, fifth, sixth, and third.
Ambrose currently is 23rd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings and is 39 points out of a qualifying position based on points right now. A win of course would take car of that and very well could happen on Sunday. Ambrose was sixth in the first practice on Friday but was 24th in the second practice.
Sonoma used to be a track dominated by road course giants like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Between 1998 and 2006 Jeff Gordon won five times and Tony Stewart twice. The only other drivers to win in that time was Ricky Rudd in 2002 and Robby Gordon in 2003. Like Robby Gordon in 2003, another exceptional road course talent Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2007.
However, ever since then a new winner and surprise road course winner at that has emerged at Sonoma. In 2008 it was Kyle Busch. Then in 2009 it was Kasey Kahne. Jimmie Johnson won in 2010 then Kurt Busch in 2011. The past two season Michael Waltrip Racing reigned with Clint Bowyer winning in 2012 and Martin Truex Jr last season in 2013.
Tony Stewart would like to harken back to his heyday at Sonoma when he won in 2001 and 2005. Currently Stewart is looking for his Chase berth win and sits seven points out of a Chase spot right now. Stewart was ninth and 28th in practice.
Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Kurt Busch have picked up their wins this season but Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, and Martin Truex Jr all would love to win for the second time at Sonoma and punch their ticket. Bowyer right now holds a Chase Grid qualifying position by being 15 points to the good but he really needs a win to solidify his standing. Kahne is 19th in points and 18 points out of a qualifying spot right now. Truex Jr is in worse shape as he is 25th in points and 78 points out of the current Chase cutoff.
Clint Bowyer looked strong on Friday. He was second in the first practice and then first in the second. Martin Truex Jr was also quick as he was fourth and seventh in the practices. Kasey Kahne was 15th and 19th.
So who could be this year's surprise Sonoma winner? Maybe Brian Vickers. He drives for Michael Waltrip Racing and was third and eighth in Friday's practices. In his first six starts at the road course his best finish was 14th but in 2012 for MWR he finished fourth and last season was 13th. Could Vickers, who is 15 points out of a Chase spot right now punch his ticket?
Other drivers that seem to have strong cars this weekend based off of the practices and are looking for their first win of 2014 are Paul Menard, Kyle Larson, and Jamie McMurray. Menard was eighth and second today, Larson was fifth and sixth, and McMurray was 14th and fourth.
Could a huge surprise Chase crasher be David Gilliland for Front Row Motorsports? If the current Chase format was around last season David Ragan would have made the Chase for FRM because of his restrictor-plate win. Well road course racing is an equalizer too and Gilliland is a good road racer. While it would be a huge surprise, Gilliland nearly won at Sonoma in 2008 for Robert Yates Racing when he finished second. Two of his better runs with Front Row Motorsports have come at the track when he finished 19th in 2010 and 12th in 2011. He was a competitive 22nd and 14th in practice today.
With Sonoma's unpredictability the past several seasons and the factor that pit strategy and fuel mileage could play a major role someone might just punch their Chase ticket on Sunday by taking advantage of the opportunity presented in front of them. Qualifying will take place Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1 and the Toyota/Save Mart 350 can be seen at 3 p.m. ET Sundat on TNT.Tags: Brian Vickers, Chase for the Sprint Cup, Chase Grid, Clint Bowyer, David Gilliland, Front Row Motorsports, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Marcos Ambrose, Motorsports, NASCAR, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Paul Menard, Sonoma Raceway