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New Chase creates no-holds-barred road racing

June 17, 2014, Holly Cain,

With regular season waning, Sonoma, Watkins Glen are opportunity races

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When NASCAR announced its innovative change to the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason eligibility -- essentially creating a win-and-you're-in scenario -- there were more than a few drivers who eagerly looked forward to a summer of right-hand turns.

For those who especially revel and thrive on the schedule's two road course events, this week's Toyota-Save Mart 350 in Sonoma, California represents a primo potential ticket to the championship party.


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Of all the implications and possible scenarios the new championship format has created, nowhere is it more impactful than the road course events where that specific skill set could very well be enough to land a driver like Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger or Danica Patrick in the Chase.

There are only 11 races left to establish the 16-driver Chase field, and surprisingly drivers such as three-time champ Tony Stewart and perennial contender Kasey Kahne are still on the outside needing a victory or at least several more solid points days.

Matt Kenseth, Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Kyle Larson and Ryan Newman are currently ranked high enough in points to qualify for the Chase, but still lack the security of a win.

And then there are those such as Ambrose and Allmendinger, who have circled Sonoma on their calendar in bold and bright colors.

For these Richard Petty Motorsports and JTG Daugherty Racing road course experts, Sunday could be a season-maker.

Yet, when it comes to Sonoma's 12-turn, 1.99-mile winding circuit through the Northern California hillsides, the "road course ringers" -- interestingly enough -- have some work to do.

For all the hype and high expectations for Ambrose and Allmendinger here, neither has ever won at Sonoma, despite in Ambrose's case having the third-best average finish (11.8) among active drivers, thanks to five consecutive top-10 outcomes.

The last two Sonoma winning drivers having come from an open-wheel, road course background, were Robby Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya way back in 2003 and 2007, respectively.

The two most recent Sonoma winners -- Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer -- made their first ever visits to a road course Victory Lane, and both are seeking their first wins of the season.

That's a trend drivers such as Kenseth, Newman and Larson would like to see continue.

For the 2003 Cup champ Kenseth, road course races have proven to be real road block.

Not only is he winless in 28 combined starts at Sonoma and the other road course circuit in Watkins Glen, New York, he doesn't have a single top-five finish and has led only one lap. His lone top-10 finish at Sonoma (eighth) came six years ago.

Newman is also winless on the road course circuits, but has a respectable three two-five finishes and 13.1 average finish, compared to Kenseth's 20.7 at Sonoma.

Larson, of nearby Elk Grove, California will be making his Sonoma debut. He has only three Nationwide Series road course races under his belt -- with widely varying results. His best showing last year was seventh at Road America, followed by a 30th at Watkins Glen then a 14th at Mid-Ohio.

Sonoma represents a good opportunity to punctuate a season resurgence for Stewart, whose seven road course wins trails only Jeff Gordon (nine) on the all-time list. The Stewart-Haas Racing owner/driver has improved five positions in the championship standings (16th) during the last four weeks and arrives in California's wine country as a two-time former winner here.  

Likewise, Kahne is a former winner (2009), who could stand a victory and a boost in the rankings -- he's currently 19th and coming off only his second top-five of the season, a fifth-place finish at Michigan.  

With nine different winners in the last nine races at Sonoma, the only thing predictable is that nothing seems to be anymore. Which isn't a bad thing.

With so much on the line and time getting tight, expect a no-holds-barred short track race to break out on the road course, where aggression meets skill and even championship long-shots could score an invite to NASCAR's most coveted and elite event, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.


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