Jacksonville Sports Day

NASCAR NOTES: Summertime on the Circuit and the Winning is Hot

Traditionally, summertime has been Martin Truex-time in terms of a trophy haul for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

Ten of his 22 career wins have occurred on or after Memorial Day weekend in May through Labor Day weekend in September.

Truex is the defending winner of this Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway and one of only two multi-time winners in this week’s field at the scenic 2.52-mile course in California’s famed Wine Country.

The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry earned his Sonoma wins in 2013 and 2018 – and led the most laps (25) in his 2017 championship year at the venue only to finish 37th of 38 cars due to engine failure.

Truex’s race days at the road course have typically been very good or very disappointing. He has two top-five finishes (including last year’s win) and two finishes of 37th or worse in the last four races at the track. Of his 154 career laps led at Sonoma, he’s led 87 of them (56.4 percent) of them in just the last two races.

Last season, Truex led the most combined laps (71) at the three road course venues – Sonoma, Watkins Glen, N.Y. and the Charlotte ROVAL.

Logano returns to the top of the points

Team Penske’s Joey Logano has retaken the championship points lead with his win at Michigan and would love to have that good mojo translate into a first career victory at Sonoma Raceway.

Logano holds a nine-point edge over two-time Sonoma winner Kyle Busch in the standings and would love nothing more than to accentuate his title defense with his first Sonoma Raceway win. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford Mustang has one pole, two top-fives and four top-10 finishes in 10 starts on the famed road course. His best showing is third in 2016 and both of his top-five finishes have come in the last four-race span.

Historically speaking, Sonoma has been challenging for Logano. His 18 laps led (over three races) at the facility is his third-lowest laps led mark of any track the Monster Energy Series currently visits. The only other tracks he’s led fewer laps at are the other road courses, Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International (nine laps led) and the Charlotte ROVAL (zero laps led). But keep in mind, he has a win at The Glen (2015).

Certainly, momentum is on Logano’s side this weekend. He has seven finishes of seventh place or better in the last eight series races this season – four of those are top-three efforts. In addition to his win at Michigan, Logano finished runner-up at both Richmond and Charlotte during that span. Only his Penske teammate Brad Keselowski (775) and Kyle Busch (763) have led more laps this season than Logano (549).

Kyle Busch’s road course skills shine at Sonoma

Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. are the only two-time winners at Sonoma Raceway this weekend.

Busch has four top-five and six top-10 finishes in 14 starts at the track. Furthermore, he’s finished seventh or better in the last four races including his victory in 2015.

That win was particularly important to Busch as it was the first victory for him after he returned from a serious injury that sidelined him for the season’s first 11 races. The Sonoma win ensured him a position in the championship Playoffs and Busch went on to earn four more race wins and eventually his first series title.

The Sonoma Raceway victory – on such a physically demanding venue – was a particular bright spot for Busch in that championship run. Busch acknowledges that perhaps his background racing on road courses (and Sonoma, in particular as a youth) made him more open to the discipline.

“It’s different, for sure,’’ Busch said. “There are a lot of guys out there who have the road racing background, who know a heck of a lot more about road racing and technique than we do. The neat thing about road racing is just being able to have – it’s like – a vacation weekend. You just go out there and have fun and do the best you can and you’ll either do really well or you’ll do really badly, and you just go on to the next one.

“We don’t have a lot of testing for it and you try to pick up on it but, with respect to who you’re racing, you can expect to race a little bit of a different crowd.

“I think the biggest thing you do for Sonoma is watch some film, look at things from the past few years that have worked and some things that haven’t, and look at what has made you better there. You always have to be mindful of what has made you good there and what you can improve on. Looking forward to heading out there and getting back in the M&M’S Hazelnut Spread Camry and having some fun.”

Statistically speaking, Kurt Busch is one to watch

Crunch the numbers at Sonoma Raceway and veteran Kurt Busch rises to the top in four of the six most important statistical loop categories. Using Loop Data since 2005, Busch leads the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in Driving Rating (107.1), Average Running Position (9.863), Laps in the Top-15 (78.9 percent) and Laps Led (167) at Sonoma Raceway.

In the other two categories (Quality Passes) and (Fastest Laps Run) – Busch is ranked second and third best, respectively. He has 351 Quality Passes compared to Jimmie Johnson’s 419. And Busch has run 89 Fastest Laps, compared to leader Martin Truex Jr.’s 100.

In fact, Busch’s 198 laps led all-time is most among active drivers and second all-time only to NASCAR Hall of Famer and five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon. And Busch’s average running position of 9.863 is especially impressive considering the second-best mark is Johnson’s 11.343.

Busch is tied with Clint Bowyer for most top-10s (10) among active drivers at Sonoma and his seven top-five finishes is second only to Bowyer’s mark of eight.  And not only are Busch’s finishes impressive, he swept the 2006 road course season scoring pole positions at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen, N.Y.

Coming to California, Busch is still looking for his first win in his first season driving the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. He has four top fives and nine top 10s in the season’s opening 15 races and is ranked eighth in the series driver standings, six points behind seventh place Denny Hamlin and 14 points behind sixth place Martin Truex Jr. – drivers that have five wins on the year between them. Busch is the highest ranked driver without a victory or any stage points in 2019.

Will this be the week for Harvick?

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick must surely be open to any home-state love he can muster this weekend at Sonoma Raceway. The Bakersfield, California, native is still looking for his first win of the 2019 season and the Sonoma 2.52-mile course has generally been a good venue for the 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

Harvick has nine top-10 finishes in 18 starts on the track, including five of the last six races there. Harvick won at Sonoma in 2017 and has finished sixth or better in the last four consecutive races there. He was runner-up last year to Truex and led 35 laps in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang. In fact, he’s led 62 of his 95 career laps out front in just the last three races.

A victory would not only make him one of only three drivers to earn multiple trophies at Sonoma but would top off a season that’s been consistently good, if trophy-less. Harvick has 10 top-10 finishes through the opening 15 races and is ranked fourth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship standings – ahead of race winners Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

Even without a victory yet, Harvick is only two points behind three-time race winner Brad Keselowski, who is third in the standings.

Sonoma is one of Clint Bowyer’s best tracks

Stewart-Haas Racing driver Clint Bowyer shows up at Sonoma Raceway this week one of only six drivers with a previous win on the road course and someone whose track record there makes him an absolute race day favorite.

The popular driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang boasts the best average finish in the field (10.077) – the third best mark all-time behind only Jeff Gordon (8.304) and the late Dale Earnhardt (8.583) – a pair of Hall of Famers.

Bowyer scored his victory in 2012 and has a series-best eight top-five finishes at Sonoma. He and Kurt Busch are tied for most top-10 finishes (10). And a victory Sunday would be a well-needed and well-timed boost for the SHR driver’s season.

He has three top-10 finishes and three finishes of 24th or worse in the last six races of the season; including a disappointing 35th- place finish at Michigan in the series’ last race before a Father’s Day off-weekend. Still, Bowyer is well inside the top-16 championship field – ranked 12th, 22-points behind his Stewart-Haas teammate Aric Almirola. A runner-up showing at Texas and third at Richmond highlight his five top-five finishes.

Bowyer has finished among the top-three in three of the last four Sonoma races – including a third-place finish in 2015, runner-up in 2017 and third place last year. The only foul mark in that run was a 40th-place finish in 2016 when an electrical problem sidelined him only five laps into the race.

“The summer stretch is everything and, looking back at our season last year, we’ve got to get better at it,’’ Bowyer said. “Everybody asks, ‘How are you going to improve from last year?’ And I say it’s that late-summer stretch. We started off great last year and then tapered off in the summer. We have to avoid that this year. You have to get on a roll, especially leading off into the Playoffs.”

The Carousel returns

The Sonoma Raceway course will have a distinct new – longer – look this weekend, at least for recent NASCAR fans. For the first time in 22 years, the course will again use the “The Carousel” turn – a tight, 200-degree plus turn that leads to the track’s long straightaway and hairpin turn.

Since 1998, NASCAR has bypassed “The Carousel” and used a 1.99-mile course. The addition of the turn makes the course layout 2.52-miles long.

The last driver to win at Sonoma with “The Carousel” is Mark Martin in 1997. Ricky Rudd is the only driver to win in both course layouts, earning the inaugural NASCAR race victory in 1989 and then winning a second time in 2002.

All of NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon’s historic five wins happened since 1998. Of the current roster of drivers entered this weekend only Kyle Busch and California natives Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick have ever turned a lap  on The Carousel configuration – all getting time on track in other series earlier in their racing careers.

Defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. anticipates “The Carousel” has the potential to significantly impact the race.

“It’s going to be a game charger,’’ Truex said. “We’ll have a fast, left-hand turn that we’ve never had there before. In the past, you focused on turning right and kind of threw the left-hand turns away. I don’t think any current driver has ran on this course, so it’s kind of starting from scratch for everyone.

“I have it embedded in my mind the track we have ran and what we’ve been doing for as long as I’ve raced there. On the old layout, I feel like I could go there and get 99 percent out of my car on Lap 1. Now you throw in the different turns and I might just get lost and fly on by the turn into the carousel. It’s going to be fun to try to figure it out. It looks like a really neat course.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *