The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes on a different twist this Sunday in the Toyota-Save Mart 350 (2 PM ET, TNT). The track at Sonoma Raceway is unique, in that it’s a road-course, meaning there are sharp turns intended to simulate driving in a regular road environment, as opposed to just turning left around the oval. It’s an environment that some drivers have mastered, others struggle with and it all combines to create a race where conventional wisdom is stood on its head.
Betting lines at Sonoma reflect this. Marcus Ambrose is in no way a serious contender for the Sprint Cup, and has not been seen among the favorites for any individual race this season. Yet Ambrose is actually the favorite on Sunday, and a solid one, posted at 5-1. Juan Montoya has had more consistent success than Ambrose, but Montoya is another one whose road course skills are worthy of respect.
The road course at Sonoma comes at a point in the season when we’re already seeing a modest bit of tumult in the standings. Tony Stewart has made it all the way back from his awful start, and is now up to 10th place, the baseline for automatic qualification for the postseason. He’s taken the place of Kasey Kahne, who has slumped to 12th.
Another driver who has hit a little bit of a lull is Dale Earnhardt Junior. In seventh place, 32 points ahead of 11th-place Greg Biffle, Junior is still in good position. But that margin is shrinking to the point where a bad week can put Earnhardt right on the bubble for playoff qualification. Furthermore, he has yet to win a race, something that will put him at a disadvantage if he does make the postseason (a layman’s description of the rules for series playoff qualification and what that means right now was posted last week).
Junior came onto the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2000, and one year later was a part of the race where the horrific accident that killed his legendary father took place. Junior took the high road and led the way in getting fans to stop the death threats being made at the other driver involved in the crash.
He also went on to build a successful career of his own, marked by five Top 10 finishes. His high-water mark was third in 2003, and he won six races in 2004. A bad stretch in 2009-10 resulted in Junior being out of the Top 20 for the only two times in his career, but he’s bounced back with consecutive trips to the postseason.
Earnhardt is now in position to make it three playoff years in a row, but he does need to arrest this little mini-slide he’s on. It’s just one of the intriguing storylines at a track where the intrigue abounds.