Sonoma race could play a key role in Chase

By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange  |  June 24, 2016 at 12:38 AM
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When NASCAR's Sprint Cup haulers pull into the muscular hills of Sonoma County north of San Francisco, all bets are off. After all, these are the beer drinkers and beef eaters arriving at a road course in wine-and-cheese country.

Because of the relative paucity of road courses in any of NASCAR's major traveling series, the odds often change at the Sonoma Raceway, one of the most technically challenging circuits in America and the world.

Entering the third year of the new "win to get in" format of the Chase, the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen International continue to loom as game changers simply because they are so different.

The biggest upset on a road course was A.J. Allmendinger's win at Watkins Glen in 2014, which elevated him to the Chase for the first and only time. This year offers two more chances for Allmendinger and other unlikely candidates to make it in.

In addition to the JTG Daugherty Racing drive, the leading candidates to pull off an upset at Sonoma are Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne. Each has won at Sonoma, but both are currently in career doldrums.

The pressure is really on Stewart, who has announced his retirement at the end of the season. He needs a victory to qualify for the Chase and also a bump in points. He enters the California race 45 points out of 30th place after missing the first eight races this year with his back injury.

Even if he wins one of the remaining 11 races, Stewart must finish in the Top 30 to qualify for the Chase.

Stewart, who has been more competitive in recent outings with the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy, has two wins at Sonoma and last won there in 2005. His best finishes since then were second in 2009 and 2012. Last year, he finished 12th.

One thing in Stewart's favor is that SHR teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have been consistently fast at Sonoma, meaning he can crib setup notes if necessary.

Kahne, riding a 62-race losing streak, has not won a race since 2014, despite driving for the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team. The driver has struggled with the chassis setups that have evolved at Hendrick, primarily with corner entry.

But at Sonoma, where he won for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2009, Kahne has usually fared well. He has four Top 10 finishes since his victory, including a Top 10 in the last three races at Hendrick.

The new charter system has cut down on the number of "guest drivers" in the Sprint Cup, who are known as "ringers" on the road courses, because they are usually road racing experts. This year, only Go FAS Racing hired an expert in the form of former IndyCar driver Patrick Carpentier.

The French-Canadian made his mark in stock cars on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, where he won the pole at the first Xfinity Series there. He then had a cup of coffee with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in 2008. Alas, driving for Go FAS, where Jeffrey Earnhardt has been a mainstay, Carpentier is not much of a threat to win.

In addition to Allmendinger, who led last year at Sonoma before an engine issue killed his chances, another dark horse is Jamie McMurray. He drives for Chip Ganassi's team, which has won at Sonoma with Juan Pablo Montoya.

McMurray led 22 laps last year and finished third. His teammate Kyle Larson, who is 23 points out of the 16th place needed to qualify for the Chase, can only hope to possibly improve his standing. Larson has no Top 10 finishes in his first two Sprint Cup races at Sonoma.

Other drivers who need to have a consistent race to maintain their points positions include Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has no wins and only two Top 10 finishes at Sonoma. Ever since his Corvette caught on fire after a morning warm-up crash at Sonoma before an IMSA race, Earnhardt Jr. has been less than fond of the tight confines of twisty Sonoma.

Austin Dillon continues to look like a Chase candidate because of consistency and points. Currently 12th in points, Dillon has no Top 10 finishes in his two previous starts at Sonoma and will be looking to have a good points day.

What about the rookies? Either Chase Elliott or Ryan Blaney might surprise with a decent showing. Elliott, who will run the K&N Pro Series race at Sonoma as a tuneup, and Blaney will be racing at the California track for the first time in a major touring series.

But both drivers have won on the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park road course in Canada in the Camping World Truck Series. And each has Top 10 finishes in the Xfinity Series at Road America.

If there's a race to look for an upset in this year's run to the Chase, Sonoma Raceway would be the place.

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