Fantasy Friday: Sonoma Preview

June 19, 2013, Dan Beaver, NASCAR.com

Fantasy Friday: Sonoma Preview
Strong road course picks balance budget and potential

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Stock car racing was born on the back roads of America.

Moonshiners and revenuers battled on twisty mountain roads and roared through sleepy towns in a high stakes race. Inevitably, they wanted to know who could outrun the rest on a closed course, and the earliest oval races were scratched out of vacant fields with farm equipment. NASCAR stepped in to give the sport structure and respectability, but the desire to drive fast on the open road never faded.

Road racing is a specialized skill, but in today’s Sprint Cup Series, nearly all of the drivers have the necessary proficiency to challenge for a top-10 finish. Last year, Cup regulars swept those treasured spots at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen International, and only three of those drivers had road racing experience before joining NASCAR. Marcos Ambrose swept the top 10 in both races. The No. 22 car also swept the top 10 with AJ Allmendinger and Sam Hornish Jr. behind the wheel, but the remainder of the top drivers cut their teeth on oval bullrings.

Road specialists will be important this week because they allow players to manage their salary cap, but the top-five finishers will come from the ranks of the regulars.

Driver rankings: Road courses

 Rank

 Driver

 Average

1.

Marcos Ambrose

4.00

2.

Jimmie Johnson

7.06

3.

Jeff Gordon

10.15

4.

Tony Stewart

10.48

5.

Martin Truex Jr.

10.64

6.

Juan Montoya

10.74

7.

Kyle Busch

13.32

8.

Clint Bowyer

13.37

9.

Kurt Busch

13.65

10.

Carl Edwards

13.95

11.

Brad Keselowski

14.00

12.

Kevin Harvick

15.51

13.

Kasey Kahne

16.54

14.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

18.00

15.

Ryan Newman

19.91

16.

Greg Biffle

20.04

17.

Jamie McMurray

20.62

18.

Joey Logano

23.04

19.

Brian Vickers

23.05

20.

Jeff Burton

23.12

21.

Matt Kenseth

23.21

22.

Denny Hamlin

24.07

23.

Paul Menard

25.06

24.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

25.55

25.

Boris Said

25.81

26.

David Gilliland

27.42

27.

Casey Mears

27.42

28.

Aric Almirola

27.78

29.

Ron Fellows

28.95

30.

David Ragan

30.71

31.

David Reutimann

31.09

32.

Alex Kennedy

32.00

33.

Bobby Labonte

33.54

34.

Danica Patrick

35.00

35.

Dave Blaney

35.65

36.

Landon Cassill

35.72

37.

Travis Kvapil

36.24

38.

Josh Wise

38.05

39.

Joe Nemechek

39.76

40.

JJ Yeley

40.43

The Favorites

Ambrose is as close to being perfect as possible on road courses. He has an average finish of 2.0 in five races at Watkins Glen and a 5.5 in his last four Sonoma races. The only thing keeping him from being absolutely perfect was a crash in his inaugural attempt on this track in 2008 when he was clobbered from behind and crashed while running in the top five. Ambrose is more than $9 cheaper than the most expensive drivers in the game. Taking him opens up a lot of salary cap room and removes budget management from the equation, but most importantly, Ambrose has a chance to win the race outright and earn maximum points.

Juan Pablo Montoya fell on hard times last year on the road courses. He developed an electrical problem in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 and crashed in the Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen, but no one doubts his ability to score a top-10 finish. He won in his first Sonoma attempt in 2007 after coming from deep in the field. He also has a victory at Watkins Glen in 2010, but while he is strong, most of his efforts end in results of sixth through 10th. If a player choses to have only one of the favorites on their roster it should be Ambrose, but Montoya is a close second.

Dark Horses

Clint Bowyer is not necessarily the first name that comes to mind on a road course, but that is rapidly changing. He won this race last year and held off a hard charge by one of the best road racers in the series as Tony Stewart nipped at his back bumper. Bowyer finished fourth in the Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen and enters the weekend with four consecutive road race finishes of 11th or better. All of the money saved by players selecting modestly priced regulars with road experience and one or two ringers will be well spent on the No. 15.

If Jimmie Johnson is on one’s roster there is no reason to take him off. Last year, he swept the top five on the two road courses and has scored top-10 finishes in seven of his last nine attempts on this track type. Often, winning means being in the right place to take advantage of another driver’s mistake and that is precisely what happened in 2010 at Sonoma. Johnson was running second to Ambrose as he stalled his car. Johnson inherited the lead, and may have otherwise had a difficult time passing Ambrose under green -- though second place still earns a lot of points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.

Greg Biffle will probably keep his momentum alive this week. He swept the top 10 last year on road courses with a seventh at Sonoma and a sixth at the Glen. That makes him one of only four drivers to perform that feat last year and he is a driver to watch. However, fantasy players should also be aware that he scored three consecutive results outside the top 20 on NASCAR’s twisty tracks before that surge of speed.

Road Ringers

Road ringers have a place in the game, even though they have struggled to earn top-10s in recent seasons. James Finch likes aggressive drivers who are constantly up on the wheel and he found a perfect example in Jacques Villeneuve. The former F1 star attacks every lap like it owes him money and he wants to prove that he can run just as hard in the Cup series as he has in Nationwide competition in recent seasons. He has four top-fives and six top-10s in nine starts there. This will be his first Cup start on a road course, but he could easily challenge to become the first road ringer to score a top-10 since Boris Said finished eighth in the 2010 Toyota/Save Mart 350.

NASCAR’s two road courses are actually quite different to one another. Sonoma is a technical course with tight corners where Watkins Glen is a fast track that allows drivers to charge the turns hard and is forgiving of minor errors. This difference is not felt as acutely by Cup regulars as it is by road ringers and Ron Fellows will be a better value at the Glen than Sonoma, but he cannot be ignored this week with a salary cap of only $10. Fellows already has a pair of top-10 finishes on this track with a seventh in 2003 and an eighth in 2005.

Three drivers will be making their Cup debuts this week and can also be used to stretch a player’s budget. Paulie Harraka, Alex Kennedy and Victor Gonzalez Jr. have all had a measure of success in the developmental series, but Gonzalez might be the best value this week. In six road course starts in Nationwide competition, he has finished 17th or better four times and with a little track position late in the Toyota/Save Mart 350, he could challenge for a top 25.