News & Media

Track Smack: Sonoma merely adds to twists and turns of season

June 21, 2012, ,

Topics: Road course different yet regular, too; Busch boys in the throes of woes

1. None of the top three drivers in Sprint Cup points have a premier-series victory on a road course. So who's the favorite this weekend on the twisty turns of Sonoma?

Mark Aumann: I really think this is a race that's perfect for somebody needing a win to advance their wild-card hopes. First name that comes to mind is Marcos Ambrose. Carl Edwards finished third here last year. Jeff Gordon is always strong. And that No. 22 Dodge was really fast -- AJ Allmendinger, perhaps?

David Caraviello: Well it's certainly not Dale Earnhardt Jr., who despite all the buzz generated by his skid-busting victory at Michigan last week has never fared very well on the Northern California road course. He's a little better at Watkins Glen, where he has a Nationwide victory. But he doesn't even own a top-10 finish at Sonoma, and he admittedly has "a chip on his shoulder" when it comes to this track, as he said last week. So I don't think we're going to see two victories in a row by the guy in the No. 88 car.

Jarrod Breeze: I'll have the usual: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon. Juan Montoya and Marcos Ambrose will be in the mix, too. As remarkable a season as Dale Jr. is having, no way he makes it two in a row at Sonoma. No top-10s there; Matt Kenseth has one. And don't even get me started on the "ringers." No way, no chance, no how.

Mark Aumann: This is Ambrose's to lose, in my opinion. He's as good as they come on road courses, and the No. 9 Ford was fast last weekend at Michigan. One thing about Sonoma -- you can strategize all you want, but sometimes it all comes down to sheer luck. Wasn't the case last year, but it only takes one crazy bump to knock you out of contention. And yeah, I think Junior would be elated to get out of California with a top-15.

David Caraviello: Yeah, the era of the ringers is past. The regular drivers are just too good on road courses anymore for them to matter. Now, maybe they salvage a few more points and help keep some lower teams safely in the top 35, but as far as a win? Forget it. The only good ringers are guys like Ambrose and Montoya, who have become full-time drivers. Boris Said can't even find a top-flight Cup ride anymore, because the regulars are just too good, and because of the Chase, too reticent to give up those seats.

* Fantasy Preview: Better choices than 'right-turn experts' | Said among 'ringers' added

Jarrod Breeze: Right, David. No one is going to jump into a car on a one-week ride and win. Brad Keselowski in his part-time deal a few years back at Talladega may be the last. That's why Montoya and Ambrose have a shot -- they are there week in and week out. Maybe this is the race to get Gordon untracked. He has two top-10s in the past four races this season, and the one-time road king just needs a push in the right direction. Maybe this is his week.

Mark Aumann: Well, a ringer would have to have everything go perfectly on Sunday to pull off the upset. They usually don't have the top equipment or top crews. And because the current chassis is almost bulletproof -- and almost impossible to drive -- the road-course races have become more of a demolition derby than traditional bullrings.

Jarrod Breeze: Ringers around the collar. Or wearing the collar.

David Caraviello: Gordon is who I'm leaning toward, Jarrod. Second there last year, with a terrific run of great finishes since his most recent victory at Sonoma in 2006. The guy's so overdue, it's painful. He had another great car last weekend at Michigan, and clearly he's going to be a factor on Sunday. But this race is so rough, and takes so many casualties, he may have to qualify up front and stay there. And as we know, the weekend favorite hardly ever wins -- although he certainly did this past week, didn't he?

Mark Aumann: It's funny, this race is one of the hardest to handicap and yet, it seems like the same faces are near the top of the leaderboard every year. It really shows which drivers have an edge in car control. Drivers say Sonoma is much more technical than Watkins Glen, which is much faster. You just can't toss the car into the corners there like you can at The Glen. I think that's why we see guys like Ambrose, Gordon and Stewart consistently near the front.

Jarrod Breeze: Very true, Mark. No surprises here, really, even though the road courses are few and far between. Only difference here is Montoya and Ambrose have a better shot than usual. Otherwise, it's business as usual. I think Hendrick has three good chances this week. Johnson and Kasey Kahne are both former winners there, too. Given how the past few weeks have shaken out, hard to discount Gordon, Johnson or Kahne for a Hendrick operation which has been on some kind of a roll since mid-May. Junior was the feel-good story last week; getting Gordon his first of 2012 will be the feel-good of this week. And that would really makes the wild-card race interesting.

David Caraviello: As far as Ambrose goes, he clearly should have one victory there (from his cutting-off-the-car episode), and no question that No. 9 has gotten a lot better as the year has progressed. But his race to lose? That's strong, given how good so many other drivers are now on road courses, and the unpredictable nature of this race. I'll give you, he hasn't finished worse than sixth there in three years, and he has the monkey of getting that first Sprint Cup win off his back, and he'll clearly be a factor. But given how deep the field of contenders is, I don't know that I'm ready to label him a prohibitive favorite.

Jarrod Breeze: Ambrose will drive top-10 most, if not all, of that race. That's as far as I am willing to go as far as his chances are concerned.

Track Smack Facts

Supporting arguments for Sonoma, road courses
• Only three drivers in the top 10 in points have a road-course win: No. 4 Jimmie Johnson (1); No. 6 Kevin Harvick (1); No. 9 Tony Stewart (7).
• Tony Stewart has two wins, four top-fives and eight top-10s in the past 10 road-course races, scoring the most points during that span. He has won five of the past 15 road-course races (two at Sonoma) and finished first (seven times) or second in 11 of his past 22 road-course starts. He has led in seven of the past eight races at Sonoma.
• Points leader Matt Kenseth (24 starts) has never had a top-five on a road course and only one top-10 (eighth at Sonoma in 2008) in the past 14 such races.
• Second place Dale Earnhardt Jr. (24 starts) has never had a top-10 at Sonoma; his best finish is 11th, three times (2003, '04 and '10). He has not had a road-course top 10 since finishing 10th at Watkins Glen in 2005.
• Third place Greg Biffle (18 starts) has three top-fives (two at Sonoma) and five top-10s (three at Sonoma) on road courses, but has finished 21st or worse 10 times (three at Sonoma) and 23rd or worse in the past three such races (and four of the past five).
• Five drivers in wild-card standing have a road-course win: No. 2 Kyle Busch (2); No. 16 Kasey Kahne (1); No. 17 Marcos Ambrose (1); No. 19 Juan Montoya (2); No. 20 Jeff Gordon (9).
• Marcos Ambrose has the best road-course average finish among active drivers, 8.1 in eight races. He has finished in the top six in the past seven road-course races (all but a transmission failure at Sonoma in his first career Cup start 2008).
• Marcos Ambrose has finished 13th or better in four of the past five races, including all three of his top-10 finishes this season; he started in the top 10 in three of the past four races, including his first Cup pole at Michigan.
• Juan Montoya has eight top-10 results (four at Sonoma) in his 10 road-course races. Montoya's win at Sonoma in 2007 was his first road-course start. Both of his Cup wins have come on road courses.
• Jeff Gordon has finished in the top 10 in the past six races at Sonoma, the longest current streak. His five wins, 12 top-fives, 15 top-10s and 437 laps led at the track tops all drivers. Jeff Gordon has the most road-course wins with nine, including six in a row from August 1997 to June 2000.
• Hendrick Motorsports has the most wins at Sonoma (6) and the most road-course wins (15).
• Hendrick Motorsports has won four of the past five races this season with three different drivers (plus both All-Star races).

David Caraviello: Watkins Glen is a superspeedway with a few more turns. Sonoma is a completely different animal. Either way, I expect another Sunday afternoon of guys banging and gouging one another, and hurt feelings after the race. There's a reason they call it Whine Country! Who's bringing the corkscrew? Oh, sorry, that's Laguna Seca. Wrong Northern California road course.

2. Kyle Busch is hanging on to wild-card contention after engine problems have sidelined the No. 18 car in each of the past three weekends. Is the Joe Gibbs Racing driver still a safe bet to make the Chase?

Mark Aumann: Oh, yeah. You can put Kyle's name on the invite list. Despite all the troubles of the past three races, he's still 12th in the standings -- and has one win. He'll win at least one more race before Richmond, if he somehow doesn't get himself back into the top 10.

Jarrod Breeze: Agreed, Mark. Busch will win again before the Chase, and he's only 26 points out of 10th. So he has the time and the talent to make that climb. If his engines hold out, yes. Dude finished first, second, fourth and third in the four races prior. Only mechanical issues can derail his season.

What are the chances?

Will Kyle Busch make the Chase? Will he win this week's race? Check to see where he and other drivers stand heading into Sonoma.

David Caraviello: A good bet? Probably. A safe bet ... sheesh. As strong as Joe Gibbs Racing can be, with three Cup championships and however many race wins to its name, this organization still seems dogged by equipment issues at times, and they usually fall on Kyle. This current fun of failures reminds of me the one that derailed his 2008 Chase, which he entered as the favorite for the championship. No question he's still in it, and at his best good enough to record another win or two to solidify his position. But I don't know if I'm quite ready to lay money on him yet.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, three of anything is a trend. But these are supposedly the only three engine problems the entire organization has had in 2012. So I'm placing this much more on coincidence than anything. Just imagine -- Kyle's 12th despite having only seven top-10 finishes. What will happen when he heats up again? That's a good team having a slump.

David Caraviello: You guys are optimistic. I will give you, they've shown great speed recently, which is half the battle. Kyle had recorded five consecutive top-10s before this current skid to get himself in Chase position. And supposedly, the problems of the past three weeks are all different -- thought I'm not sure whether to read that as something positive or not. But we all know how good the guy is, and I do have faith that Kyle can race his way out of just about anything. But the parts have to hold out first.

Jarrod Breeze: That being said, the little engine that couldn't has dropped him from eighth to 12th in points. So JGR better find the remedy for what ails those engines. Or else there will be no "I think i can" come Chase time.

Mark Aumann: If this was last season, when it seemed like the stuff coming out of the Gibbs shop was haunted, I'd give you that, David. But this is all tried and true Toyota Racing Development gear, the same stuff that has had Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr. running up front all year. I see this as a speed bump rather than a cliff. Or since we're going to a road course, a berm.

David Caraviello: Mark, I see situations like this, and I can't help but think of the heim-joint problem at New Hampshire in the fall of 2008. I know that turned out to be human error, and someone not hooking up the part properly -- and who knows, these engine issues may have their root in the same thing -- but we're simply too unsurprised when this stuff happens to JGR cars, and that has to change if its ever going to win another title. Because goodness knows, the people and the cars are good enough.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, I see your point. And certainly Kyle's inability to have had a solid championship run -- with all that talent -- does make you wonder. I just think this isn't as ominous as it seems.

David Caraviello: Mark, I will give you the JGR and MWR guys are working more closely, and yes, the Toyota folks are clearly more involved at Gibbs. And Denny Hamlin has been under-the-radar good all season, and Joey Logano is in the midst of something of a comeback. Clearly, the equipment and the speed are there.

Jarrod Breeze: I think we're all in pretty much agreement here -- Kyle is a Chase-caliber driver, for sure. But he is dependent on his equipment, and that will determine his fate.

Mark Aumann: And I can't fault the guy for not hooking up the heim joint. He probably didn't know there was such thing as a heim joint.

David Caraviello: I didn't until that day.

Jarrod Breeze: Heim joint! What's the point? This is 2012, not 2008. One has nothing to do with the other as it pertains to his current situation. Yes, mechanical issues seem to doom Busch more so than driving skill. But I'm not going to condemn a driver's chances this season based on an isolated incident a few years ago.

David Caraviello: Speaking of a few years ago ... let's not forget Kyle Busch swept both road circuits in that 2008 campaign, Sonoma of course among them. We know he's capable of winning this weekend. So as far as getting things turned around -- well, no better time than the present.

-- Check out Kyle Busch's season highlights:

3. Speaking of the brothers from Las Vegas, Kurt Busch is defending champion of this race in Sonoma, although now he's driving a different car. Is Kurt capable of winning this weekend -- or any weekend -- in the No. 51?

Mark Aumann: He was so dominant last season, but it's not only a different year but a different team and a different situation. I just don't see him overcoming all those odds to win in 2012, let alone coming through at Sonoma. What did team owner James Finch say, they had wrecked 14 cars -- not counting Michigan?

Jarrod Breeze: I don't think so. If the 51 wins again, it will have to be at one of the fluke tracks such as Talladega when the aforementioned Brad Keselowski pulled off the feat. Sonoma is different, yes, but like we have already established, the track isn't prone to one-hit wonders. Yes, Busch has recorded 24 hits in his career, but not in that car.

Career breakdown

Repeated run-ins threaten to derail Kurt Busch, a former champ with Roush and Chase contender with Penske.

Laps Led3,4772,9017706
Avg. St.19.013.812.024.1
Avg. Fin.18.416.914.623.5
Best Rank1*4^1127~

David Caraviello: One thing that may very go overlooked this weekend is that the defending champion of this race is indeed Kurt, who won after former crew chief Steve Addington designed a brilliant pit-stop strategy. I don't think Kurt has quite the car underneath him to repeat. Those Finch machines are good at plate tracks, and they can be competitive at bigger venues, but I don't know if I can see Kurt realistically contending here. Although -- don't forget, this race takes a toll on a lot of people, and as we've seen in recent years, fuel strategy can absolutely play a role in determining who wins. So, you hang around long enough, wait on something to happen ... maybe. Not likely, of course, but anything is certainly possible.

Mark Aumann: I think he's perhaps trying to overcompensate for not having the equipment, manpower or money equal to the bigger operations. That's got to be frustrating, but he's really only got himself to blame for the predicament he's in. And yeah, JB, Phoenix Racing seems to be on firmer footing when it comes to restrictor plates, perhaps because those races are such a spin of the roulette wheel.

Jarrod Breeze: Does Kurt Busch have the temperament to "wait?" As Mark eluded to, he's driving this car because of his undoing and I don't see him staying cool under pressure. I think Busch right now better worry about solid finishes, not even saying top-10s at the moment, but decent finishes. Winning is not a realistic goal.

Mark Aumann: I don't even know if that team has a dedicated road-course car. This is just my observation, but Kurt seems to be trying to take a top-20 car and get it into the top 10. And instead, he winds up 30th after getting caught up in something. And it just seems to be snowballing every weekend.

David Caraviello: Mark, I really think the primary source of a lot of Kurt's frustration this season hasn't been the media or anything else, it's him trying to squeeze all he can out of cars that can give only so much to him. After all, that was what started the whole deal at Darlington, him getting frustrated that he had used up the car and spun, scuttling what might have been a top-10 effort. He comes out of that night with a decent finish, I truly believe he prevents all of the controversies that followed. It's still all about the driver and the car, at heart.

Mark Aumann: Just having a clean weekend, keeping the fenders on the thing and getting it back on the hauler to use again would be a victory.

David Caraviello: JB, I'm never going to sell Kurt Busch short inside a race car. Say what you want about the dude, but the sucker can drive. But he can only do so much with the vehicle underneath him these days. Is that a situation he put himself in? Certainly. But none of this diminishes the fact that the cat can wheel it.

Jarrod Breeze: Cat? Thank you, David Waltrip. And very true, BTW. Just like we determined with little brother Kyle, often it's the equipment that determines the outcome and Kurt just doesn't have it. And the madder he gets knowing that, the worse it becomes. I know Finch has a deal with Hendrick for its engines, much like Stewart-Haas, but single-car teams just simply cannot make a go at it in today's NASCAR -- and by "make a go" I mean consistently being a threat for a top-10 every week ... much less winning.

Mark Aumann: No matter what you think of the guy's mental makeup right now, you have to feel for how far he's fallen. When this deal came down, I thought perhaps Finch was the kind of guy who could get Kurt's head on straight and get his career going in the right direction again. Now I'm not so sure. Kurt's pretty much imploding -- with the exception of running Nationwide for his brother. You just begin to wonder what kind of future the guy is going to have in this sport.

* Finch committed to 'racing together with Kurt'

Jarrod Breeze: Ladies and gentlemen, Kurt Busch, your 2013 Nationwide Series champion.

David Caraviello: Yeah, it's a downward spiral, guys. Lesser equipment equals more frustration equals ... well, the situation Kurt finds himself in now. Of course, he could still be quite unhappy in very good equipment, as we heard over the radio more than a few times when he was in the 22. I wonder now if he wishes he had appreciated some of those vehicles a little more.

Mark Aumann: If you're a big-money sponsor, can you afford to put yourself in a position where either Kurt goes through equipment faster than they changed tire compounds at Michigan? Or even worse, worrying about the next meltdown? That championship in 2004 seems a million years ago now. He was 26 and I think we all assumed he'd just keep piling them up. And look at where he is now.

Jarrod Breeze: Mark, I don't feel sorry for Busch.

David Caraviello: On the flip side of it, what does all this portend for AJ Allmendinger? That 22 car was awfully stout last season. It's a completely new cast of characters, I understand, but you wonder how many of those Sonoma 2011 notes are still lying around. They used some pit strategy to win the race, true, but that doesn't mean the car wasn't solid. Goodness knows, AJ could use the finish.

Jarrod Breeze: I wasn't going to bring up AJ, but since you did ... that shows you what kind of a driver Kurt Busch is. It's easy to sit here and say the driver has the talent if the car is good, but that's not the case. The Kurt/AJ/22 deal is showing that.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, I think everyone -- including AJ -- thought this was a perfect situation to break out. And it hasn't really happened.

Jarrod Breeze: Every week we get the "this could be the week for AJ" and every week it isn't. And until it is, let's move on.

David Caraviello: I don't know about perfect -- they kind of made the best out of a rushed situation. AJ's driving for his future in that car, and he needs to get things turned around relatively soon. Hey, he's from Northern California, right? I bet he might know where to find a nice pinot noir.

Mark Aumann: Or maybe even a decent heim joint.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.

-- Check out Kurt Busch's season highlights: