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Sonoma's history favors winless drivers

June 19, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

Sonoma's history favors winless drivers
Odds stacked against Johnson, but don't count him out

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Jimmie Johnson isn’t the best road course racer in NASCAR and maybe that’s what the competition should keep telling itself as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Sonoma Raceway for this weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

The six-time Cup champion has been on a bit of a tear (three wins his last four starts), and such success typically doesn’t bode well for others in the garage.

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Fortunately for those looking to keep pace with the No. 48 team, Sonoma, the season’s first road-course stop, is something of an equalizer.

A few new names are often added to the list of potential suspects when the series heads out west.

The 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway layout, with its elevation changes (160 feet between the highest and lowest point on the track) and 12 turns, doesn’t play favorites -- the last nine Cup races have seen nine different winners.

After 15 races, it would seem that most teams have found their rhythm by now, with the better teams separating themselves from those still searching.

But the numbers, again, appear to favor those still looking for the off ramp that leads to victory lane. Seven of the last 10 winners of the race scored their first win of the season at Sonoma – most recently defending race winner Martin Truex Jr.

Previous years saw Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, former Sprint Cup regular Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart break the ice at the west coast stop.

Perhaps that suggests yet another face in the winner’s circle this weekend, the series has seen 10 thus far, but then again who knows how these things will turn out? There are drivers that are obviously more skilled at turning to the right and the left, and those that struggle. From that standpoint, it’s not a lot different from some of the series’ other stops. But while talent may shift, technology may not. A skilled racer still needs a fast car and able pit crew to have a chance at victory.

Maybe the fact that no Sonoma winner has come into the event having won the previous week says something about Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team’s chances this weekend. The races preceding the Sonoma event have changed through the years -- since 1989 the previous week’s stops have included Dover, Talladega, Martinsville, Pocono and most recently Michigan -- but no one has managed to go back-to-back with consecutive victories capped off with a Sonoma win.

Still, three wins in four races and you wonder what all the fuss was about earlier this year when it seemed the Hendrick Motorsports team was trying to find its way. No one else goes from flunky to favorite quite so fast.

Of course, it’s not as if Johnson hasn’t run well at Sonoma, because he has. Well enough to win in 2010, and well enough to finish ninth or better in the three races since.

His career win total now stands at 69, and talk about reeling in a few of the sport’s legends is already heating up. 

Given the Sonoma track’s history, perhaps another win by the 48 team would seem less likely here than elsewhere.

Then again, similar tales were told a week ago when the series stopped at Michigan International Speedway, where Johnson had been winless in 24 previous attempts.

But that’s no longer the case. Scratch another track of the list of those where Johnson has yet to win; only Kentucky, Chicago, Watkins Glen and Homestead remain.

He may not be the favorite heading into this weekend’s race, but to overlook Johnson and his team would be foolish.

He’s proven that too many times in the past.

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