Its road course week in NASCAR, as the Sprint Cup Series goes to Sonoma, CA on Sunday afternoon for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The track at Sonoma is so referred because it’s literally set up as a road, with its sharp turns the same way you’d drive if you were going through a neighborhood (well, I guess I hope not too much like the way you drive in a neighborhood, but I trust the point is clear).
“You’re going to have some road course ringers who aren’t regulars”, said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill. He cited Ron Fellows and Boris Said as examples. The so-called ringers are drivers who either specifically target races like this, or are hired by teams with weaker drivers to try and make some purse money in these specific spots.
Juan Montoya is a regular, not a ringer, but he’s had some success on this type of surface. He won in Sonoma in 2007—unlike a lot of other tracks, there’s only one race a year here, so one win over a five-year period is a little bigger deal. Montoya has had a bad year after some rough luck at the Daytona 500 was the first warning sign that 2012 wouldn’t be kind, but he made his bones as a driver in the Formula One series, which requires one to drive road courses effectively.
Another recent winner to watch is Kasey Kahne. This is Bill’s favorite driver, who won here in 2009 and badly needs a win right now. Kahne is 67 points out of 10th place, the cutoff for automatic spots in the Sprint For The Cup in the fall, where 12 drivers are given chances to win the championship. Kahne is also 36 points back of Ryan Newman, who would get the second wild-card spot in the playoffs (Kyle Busch being the other). Making up the point margin by consistent high finishes is a tough row to hoe. Furthermore, outright wins are paramount in determining who gets the wild-cards, which is why 11th-place Carl Edwards would be out in the cold if the season ended today. Conversely, Kahne has one win under his belt and needs another one to separate himself from the two current wild-card leaders, along with Joey Logano, who drove himself into contention with a win two weeks ago.
Kahne’s season has been mostly a struggle, as a slow start has him underachieving. “Personally I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Bill said when I asked him about his man’s chances of qualifying for the postseason races. In this I guess, Bill and I have are having similar summers as he watches Kahne and I watch the Red Sox. Both trying to overcome slow starts and make the playoffs.
One driver who hasn’t been off to a slow start is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won his first race in four years last week. This got understandable publicity, but don’t overlook that Earnhardt has been solid all year, as evidenced by the fact he’s in second place, just four points off the leader Matt Kenseth. One driver who’s going cold is Greg Biffle, who led the standings for much of the early part of the season, but has now slipped to third, 17 points back.