No 'safe bet' for victory at Sonoma
June 21, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
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SONOMA, Calif. – There was a time when a handful of drivers dominated road-course races in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
Jeff Gordon once won three straight at Sonoma Raceway, site of Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, TNT), and five out of nine. He won three in a row and four of five at Watkins Glen, the only other road-course stop on the schedule for Sprint Cup teams.
Tony Stewart won five of eight during a stretch at Watkins Glen; Mark Martin won three straight there. Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace could always be considered heavy favorites when turning right came into play. They've both got the trophies to prove it.
But with nine different winners in the past nine races at Sonoma, has that time passed?
Drivers have a better understanding of what they need to go fast on a road course, Joey Logano, driver of the Team Penske No. 22 Ford, said Friday. Domination is dead.
"Now there are 20 guys that can win this race and I think over the last few years, you look here at Sonoma -- the (Michael Waltrip Racing) cars have done really well. They've had some really good drivers and this rules change can be a big change for them, you never know.
"... The strategy has to play out perfectly, your race has to go well -- there's so much that goes into winning these road course races, and that's what makes this special because there are only two of them a year. So if you're able to do that, it's kind of a special win."
MWR drivers have won the last two Sonoma races – Martin Truex Jr. a year ago and Clint Bowyer in 2012. The seven other winners were Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, Gordon and Stewart.
Truex has since left MWR, and now drives for Furniture Row Racing. He was fourth and seventh in Friday's two practices.
Montoya has departed to IndyCar and Team Penske, although he returned for a Sprint Cup start last week at Michigan and is entered in this year's Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"I remember the year that Kasey Kahne won here; it was kind of a surprise to everybody," Jamie McMurray said. "But I think that all of us have gotten so much better at road course racing over the years that if you put someone in the right position in the end, they're capable of winning.
"And MWR has been really good here. ... I love Clint Bowyer to death, but I would never have put him in winning a road course category, right? But when you look back, he's done really well at road course racing. So, yeah, it's kind of circumstantial."
Strategy, starting position and tire management all come into play at Sonoma, where some teams may try to go the distance with just two pit stops, hoping track position will win out.
Only one winner has come from the front row in the last four starts, and it's been a decade since the pole winner won a race here (Jeff Gordon in 2004).
"Things evolve so much with this new rule package," Bowyer noted. "That setup that won the last two races ... it won't compete. I dig that about this sport. You have to be able to keep up with the times and keep pushing forward."
Hendrick Motorsports teams enter Sunday's race on a five-race win streak, with victories by Gordon, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson, with 69 career wins, said picking a Sonoma winner is the most difficult.
"Then when you add the fuel strategy that typically plays in, that shakes it up as well," the six-time Sprint Cup champion said.
"I think all four of our Hendrick cars will be capable ... and we certainly want to keep the streak alive. But I can't pick a favorite here.
"I probably could pick a favorite, but I don't think there is a safe bet on a winner. I think there are 20, 25 cars that could win here."