With the points from only 26 regular-season races counted to qualify for the Chase, every position on the track matters. Road racing is inherently exciting because NASCAR Sprint Cup regulars only compete on this track type a couple of times a year, but the sense of urgency at Sonoma this week is unmatched by previous seasons.
Friday’s practice provided enough off-track excursions to fill a highlight reel, and in the opening minutes of the first session, drivers who encompass a wide gamut of road-racing experience drove their cars into the dirt. Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard, Aric Almirola and Jimmie Johnson experienced trouble as they frantically searched for an advantage they could carry over to Sunday.
Denny Hamlin waited about 30 minutes before his first off-course expedition in the first practice session, but he survived the trip without damage. He was not as lucky in Happy Hour, and his No. 11 Toyota limped back to the pits after he hit a tire barrier in Turn 10. The team opted to repair its primary car, but Hamlin is going to have a long day ahead of him after qualifying only 17th.
There is an accepted truth in road racing that drivers want to get their car to run best in the final corner before the checkered flag. At Sonoma, that final challenge is a hairpin, and passing there is difficult at best unless contact is made. So the drivers back up one corner and concentrate on Turn 10. That was calamity corner in both practice and qualification, and it is where fantasy rosters will be made and broken on Sunday.
In fact, one of the new kids on the block and a dark horse pick this week crashed in Turn 10 during qualification. Victor Gonzalez Jr. was chasing David Stremme on his first timed lap and drove wide in that corner; he never made it back to the finish line as his car was towed to the pits after sustaining heavy damage.
There are tracks on which qualification is important, but on a road course it is critical. In the past three years, no more than one driver per race at Sonoma and Watkins Glen International has scored a top-10 after starting 26th or worse. Thankfully, there are a couple of bargains just inside the top 25 this week. Jacques Villeneuve qualified 22nd with Boris Said close behind in 24th and Ron Fellows 25th.
In the history of Sonoma, 33 percent of the winners have come from the front row and 58 percent started fifth or better. It is a fair bet that trend will continue and pole sitter Jamie McMurray and second-place starter Marcos Ambrose have radically increased their odds of taking the trophy home. Qualified third through fifth respectively, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Clint Bowyer can reasonably expect to score at least top-10 finishes, which makes each of them a great value in this week’s NASCAR Fantasy Live game.
Strategy will shake up the field several times on Sunday, so fantasy players need to take a long view of the Toyota / Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, TNT) and should not panic if their team looks bad at the halfway mark. They should watch NASCAR Fantasy Live's real-time scoring and realize that the cream is going to rise to the top before the checkers wave.