Thursday, June 21, 2012

5 Questions Before: Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

1. Will a road course specialist win or will a driver not known for right turns take the checkers?

Unless you count Robby Gordon, the only three drivers slated to start Sunday specifically because of their road race expertise are Brian Simo, the 2000 TransAm champion, in the No. 30 Toyota for Inception Motorsports and Tomy Drissi, the 2009 TransAm champ, in the No. 10 Ice Age: Continental Drift Chevrolet. Gordon's racing for the first time since Phoenix in March, but he's raced enough ovals not to be categorized as solely a road course racer. And what would a road course race be without Boris Said? He'll be driving for Frankie Stoddard in the No. 32 HENDRICKCARS.COM Chevy.

Other regulars known to have run road courses outside Sprint Cup are Marcos Ambrose in the RPM Stanley No. 9. He's got some momentum right now with 3 top tens and a pole in the last five races so hitting a road course right now could be just what he needs to get that second Cup victory. Leavine Family Racing brought their No. 95 at the insistence of driver Scott Speed, the 2004 Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup and Germany champion, who considers Sonoma to be his home track. EGR's Juan Pablo Montoya, the 1999 CART championship, won his first stock car race at a road course in Mexico City and at Sonoma in 2007. Brian Vickers just ran the 24 Hours of LeMans last weekend and AJ Allmendinger's team won the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in February. Any of those drivers could be a threat.

Only three drivers in the top 12 in points have won at the 1.990-mile road course: Tony Stewart (2), Jimmie Johnson (1), and Kyle Busch (1).

Of course, Cup racing has plenty of drivers who've had success at Sonoma. Kurt Busch last year, Kyle Busch in 2008, Kasey Kahne in 2009... or perhaps one of the teams who've worked hard to improve their road course programs. But statistically, the best at the Northern California track is the subject of my next question.

2. Will Jeff Gordon get to ring the Hendrick Victory Bell next?

In case you hadn't heard, Jeff Gordon's year isn't going so hot. Where better to get his turn at ringing the bell Dale Earnhardt Jr. rang this week than the track at which he leads all drivers in wins (5), top fives (12), top tens (15), poles (5), laps led (437), and average finish (8.7).

Gordon hasn't won at Sonoma since 2006, but he finished second last year, so perhaps a bit of road racing is just what Four-Time needs to break his streak of bad luck.

3. Will Kyle Busch get his mojo back?

The 2012 season has been a roller-coaster for the younger Busch brother. On the one hand, his name hasn't been in the NASCAR headlines for his behavior, either on or off the track, only for his up and down performance. For three weeks in a row now he's had engine problems, leading to DNFs at Dover and Pocono, and a 32-place finish at Michigan. Busch sits 12th in points with a win, so he's still got a strong chance to make the Chase, but if the run of luck that's plagued him doesn't let up, he'll be lucky to finish in the top 20.

4. Will Tony Stewart pay back Brian Vickers for last year's on-track incident?

Last year's Save Mart 350 didn't lack for excitement and the point-counterpoint between the eventual season champion and the driver sliding into MWR's No. 55 a week after running at Le Mans probably is most memorable. Tony Stewart went on a "nobody's going to block me or they'll get punted" rant and he punted Vickers, who paid Stewart back with just five to go. The image of Stewart's No. 14 Home Depot car with the rear end jacked up on the tire barrier in turn 11 is one that most viewers will remember for years to come. Will Stewart carry a grudge? Will Vickers? We'll see on Sunday.

5. Will the Nationwide Series race at Road America be equal to or better than the Cup race at Sonoma?

The Sargento 200 runs Saturday at the wildly popular Elkhart Lake, Wis., road course and the lineup should make for some exciting racing. Ron Fellows, the Canadian road course specialist, will suit up for JR Motorsports in the No. 5 AER Manufacturing Chevy, Jacques Villeneuve, 1997 F1 champion, gets behind the wheel of the No. 22 Discount Tires Dodge for Roger Penske, Max Papis, 2004 Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype Co-Champion steps into the No. 33 Menard's Chevy for Richard Childress. Nelson Piquet Jr., 2002 Formula Three Sudamericana champion and 2004 British Formula Three champion makes his third NNS start. He'll be driving the No. 30 Chevy for Turner Motorsports and fellow Brazilian Miguel Paludo, the 2008 and 2009 Porsche GT3 Cup Brazil champion, makes his Nationwide debut in the No. 32 Duroline Brakes Chevy.

In addition to all that road course experience, Eric McClure makes his first start back since his accident at Talladega. Kurt Busch will be piloting the Monster machine, then flying to Sonoma to race there. Add in a great points battle and the Nationwide Series 3rd Annual Road America "200" could very well be every bit as exciting as the Cup race.

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