Ambrose Still My Favorite Heading Into Sunday
Practice is very important when the Cup Series comes to the road course tracks, and in case you missed the two sessions, or would like to see the numbers click here to check out my Practice Breakdown that I posted earlier today. In my Infineon Preview (click here if you didn’t read it earlier this week) I broke down all of the road course ringers that will race on Sunday. I don’t think any of them will challenge for this win, but a solid top 15 is possible for a couple, which is very valuable in allocation leagues. Qualifying is equally–if not more–important as practice, but some of the drivers starting in the top ten this weekend aren’t ones that come to your head immediately when discussing road course picks. Joey Logano (who’s career best finish at Sonoma is 19th) won the pole for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 and the entire starting lineup can be found by clicking here.
Although many–myself included–thought Marcos Ambrose was going to get his first career win here last season, Jimmie Johnson captured his first road course victory at Infineon Raceway last season, edging out Robby Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon. The entire results from the 2010 race at Sonoma can be found by clicking here. Finally, don’t forget that there will be a mid-season fantasy NASCAR draft this Wednesday, and you can find all the details about this event by clicking here. I won’t be making any predictions for the Daytona and Kentucky races, but you can expect them to return once the series stops at Loudon in mid-July.
Final Top Fifteen Ranking For The Toyota/Save Mart 350:
1. Marcos Ambrose – Starts 8th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 11.1 (three wins)
**Change from my preview: no change. — Risk Factor: Virtually No Risk**
I started this week saying Ambrose was finally going to breakthrough for his first victory in the Sprint Cup Series, and I’m not changing that now. Of the drivers that I think have the best chance at winning on Sunday, Marcos had the best qualifying effort, which makes me like him even more. You should all know the history of the Tasmanian on road courses, and if he wants to make the Chase as a wildcard this year, Marcos is probably going to need to win both road course races, which I think is definitely possible. Kasey Kahne drove Ambrose’s #9 Ford to victory lane here in 2009 and won the pole and finished 4th in it last season at Infineon. He wasn’t as stellar as I would have liked to see in practice, but Marcos ended up 6th on the average speed chart.
2. Kurt Busch – Starts 11th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 12.2 (two wins)
**Change from my preview: +8 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
Kurt Busch has struggled at Infineon recently, but I seriously think he has the car to beat going into the Toyota/Save Mart 350. He’s been consistently fast all weekend (and for the last month, actually) and Kurt’s 11th-place qualifying effort is actually a little worse than his average starting position at Sonoma. Busch topped the average speed chart and with the way this team has been running recently, they will end up in victory lane very soon. Will this be the week? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
3. Jimmie Johnson – Starts 12th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 10.6 (two wins)
**Change from my preview: no change. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
“Five Time” finally visited victory lane at a road course at Sonoma last season, and I think he could challenge for the win here on Sunday as well. When Jimmie Johnson has a bad week (like he did last Sunday in Michigan) he usually rebounds and has a great run, and I don’t think that this week will be an exception. He has the best average driver rating at this track over the last two years and hasn’t finished worse than 17th here since 2005. He ended up 7th on the average speed chart, which was kind of surprising to me because the #48 team usually doesn’t show their hand much during practice.
4. Jeff Gordon – Starts 13th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 13.9 (one win)
**Change from my preview: +2 spots. — Risk Factor: Virtually No Risk**
The #24 didn’t blow me away in practice (18th on the average speed chart), but you can’t go against Gordon’s history at this track: he has five straight single-digit finishes at Infineon and has visited victory lane five times in his career here. Jeff’s average career finish of 9.1 is good enough for second-best in the series at this track. His average driver rating of 100.5 over the past two years at Sonoma is good enough for 5th-best in the series.
5. Kevin Harvick – Starts 26th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 15.8
**Change from my preview: no change. — Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
It’s a little risky to pick “Happy” this weekend due to his poor qualifying effort, but as long as he doesn’t get spun or get damage while in the middle of the pack, Harvick could have a nice, solid run on Sunday. He ended up 11th on the average speed chart and brought the #29 Chevrolet home in 3rd last season at this track. Harvick has three top five finishes in ten starts at Infineon, but he also has four finishes outside of the top 20. It’s risky, but you know what they say: high risk, high reward.
6. Kyle Busch – Starts 19th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 15.3
**Change from my preview: +2 spots. — Risk Factor: High Risk**
This #18 Toyota is pretty fast (5th on the average speed chart), but “Rowdy” is going to have to be patient early on Sunday to make his way up through the field after starting 19th. He’s hit-or-miss at these tracks, which is part of the reason why I have him as High Risk this weekend. There was also a clutch problem reported on this car during practice. At Watkins Glen, Busch has five straight top 10s, and he led 78 laps and won here in Sonoma during the 2008 season.
7. Ryan Newman – Starts 5th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 14.1
**Change from my preview: +6 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
“The Rocketman” isn’t the first person you think of when the series comes to these road courses, but he’s not too shabby. His 11th-place average finish here is good enough for 4th-best in the series and Newman’s worst finish in ten starts here has been 20th. At Watkins Glen, he finished 2nd in his rookie year, and Ryan’s best effort at Infineon was in 2006 when he led 11 laps and finished 2nd.
8. A.J. Allmendinger – Starts 7th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 9.8
**Change from my preview: +6 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
Sleeper alert! The Dinger now has one of the best road course racers as a partner, but even before Marcos Ambrose took over the #9 Ford at Richard Petty Motorsports, A.J. wasn’t terrible on these serpentine tracks. He finished 7th here in 2009 and brought the #43 home in 13th last season after starting 15th. This 7th-place qualifying effort is Allmendinger’s best effort at Infineon in his career. In three Watkins Glen starts, A.J.’s worst finish has been 13th and he posted a solid 4th-place effort there last season. He was 8th on the average speed chart.
9. Clint Bowyer – Starts 9th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 14.5 (one win)
**Change from my preview: +5 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
This ranking may be a little too low for Bowyer because they are really happy with their car, but I’m going to be conservative with the #33 Chevorlet. He starts 9th and could easily crack the top five early because the car is pretty fast (he was 3rd on the average speed chart). Clint’s first four starts at this track gave him three top 10s and a worst finish of 16th, but his 31st-place effort here last season really brings down his average finish. Click here to read what was posted on Clint’s Twitter page before Happy Hour was over.
10. Kasey Kahne – Starts 6th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 15.2
**Change from my preview: -3 spots. — Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
It’s really a coin flip with Kasey Kahne this weekend. He ended up 17th on the average speed chart, which isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great, either. He won at this track in 2009 and ended up 4th here last season, but before that, Kasey’s best finish in his first five starts at Infineon was 23rd. Kahne’s best career finish at Watkins Glen is 14th, and the only reason I think he could get a top ten this weekend is because of where he starts.
11. Denny Hamlin – Starts 4th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 14.9
**Change from my preview: +1 spot. — Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
I don’t like going against the most recent winner, and I’m still scratching my head as to how Denny Hamlin didn’t make my preview rankings at all. He finished 5th at Sonoma in 2009, and in 2006 and 2007 Denny ended up 12th and 10th, respectively. At the other road course, Watkins Glen, has recorded four top 10s in five starts. He wasn’t stellar in practice (24th on the average speed chart) but the #11 will roll off the grid 4th on Sunday, and track position is huge at these tracks.
12. Tony Stewart – Starts 20th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 14.8
**Change from my preview: -8 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
“Smoke” was a lock for me coming into the week, but he hasn’t really impressed me thus far this weekend. Stewart was 23rd on the average speed chart–which is pretty normal for him–but he starts 20th, which is much worst than his average start of 9.3 at this track. Tony has four straight top 10s at Infineon, and while that is certainly possible to extend to five on Sunday, I think there are better picks than the #14 this weekend.
13. Juan Montoya – Starts 17th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 16.6
**Change from my preview: -11 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
Some may think I am crazy ranking Juan this low, but I’m really not that confident that he will be his normal self on Sunday. The #42 Chevrolet ended up just 15th on the average speed chart and Montoya qualified 17th, although his average start here is 21st. Juan’s average finish at Infineon is 5.8, but I expect that to decrease a little bit once it’s all said and done on Sunday. Could he take the checkered flat again in Sonoma? Yes, he’s one of the best on the road courses, but I don’t think Montoya has the car to compete for the win this weekend.
14. Jamie McMurray – Starts 2nd – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 14.2
**Change from my preview: wasn’t ranked. — Risk Factor: High Risk**
When Jamie Mac qualified on the front pole on Friday, I thought it was just a fluke and that he would–as usual–disappoint his fantasy owners that were fooled into picking him. However, McMurray was near the top in both practice sessions and even ended up 4th on the average speed chart. Never in a million years would I think that this car would be the fastest of the Earnhardt-Ganassi stable going into the race, but it is. However, like Kyle Wiseman told me on Twitter, he’ll probably mess it up and be his normal self. If he doesn’t, though, McMurray might surprise some people on Sunday. His last three Infineon starts have ended in finishes of 15th, 14th, and 18th.
15. Martin Truex, Jr. – Starts 14th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group
–Average finish of this ranking in 2011 = 14.7 (one win)
**Change from my preview: wasn’t ranked. — Risk Factor: High Risk**
He starts 14th, but I think Martin Truex, Jr. has a chance to challenge for a top ten on Sunday, and maybe even a top five. His car was pretty fast in both practice sessions, and Truex wound up 2nd to Kurt Busch on the average speed chart. However, as you probably know, if the bad luck bug is going to bite anyone, it’s going to be the driver of the #56 Toyota. If he can pull off a mistake-free race, though, there is potential for Martin to have a solid run–as long as Jeff Gordon doesn’t take him out of contention again.
Just Outside The Top Fifteen For The Toyota/Save Mart 350:
16. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Junior has finished between 11th and 13th in three of the last four Infineon races, and he could easily finish there on Sunday, but I think the #88 Chevrolet will come home in the late-teens. He starts 18th–which is actually a good qualifying effort from Earnhardt–but he was 26th on the average speed chart. Steve Letarte has found a lot of success at this track with Jeff Gordon, but I don’t expect Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to get his first career top ten at this track this weekend.
17. Joey Logano – I was really surprised to see Logano on the pole for this race, and I’m sure a lot of other people were as well. However, I don’t expect to see “Sliced Bread” up there for very long once the green flag waves: in two starts at Infineon, Logano’s best finish has been 19th. At Watkins Glen, the other road course, Joey’s best effort has been a 16th, which came during his rookie year.
18. Brad Keselowski – His teammate, Kurt Busch, is wicked fast and Brad Keselowski doesn’t look to terrible either. He was 13th on the average speed chart and will roll off the grid in 15th on Sunday. Brad’s two road track races have ended in 35th and 20th-place finishes, but I think he has a chance to finish close to the top 15 on Sunday.
19. Robby Gordon – My main concern with Robby Gordon this weekend is whether or not his equipment will hold up. He has the talent, that’s for sure, but while he has had good runs here in the past, something usually happens to ruin Robby’s day (three of his last five starts here have ended in finishes of 36th or worse). Gordon finished runner-up in the Sonoma race last season, but it will have to take some perfect strategy to come close to that on Sunday.
20. Boris Said – Boris isn’t really in that bad of equipment (Landon Cassill finished 12th with this car last weekend at Michigan) but he can’t seem to find the speed. I didn’t expect him to qualify very well, but Said was only 21st on the average speed chart and he couldn’t even really get one good lap out of it during the two practice sessions on Saturday. I’ll be rooting for Boris this weekend, but, like Robby Gordon, it will take strategy for him to get a good finish.
Stay Away From These Drivers For The Toyota/Save Mart 350:
Carl Edwards – I never thought I would put Carl Edwards on my “Avoid” list this season, but here you go. This is Carl’s second-worst track statistically and this team is really struggling this weekend. I expected Carl to not be his usual self this weekend because of how his season is going, but I was completely wrong. The #99 ended up 32nd on the average speed chart and Edwards starts 23rd. I’ll pass.
Greg Biffle - Like his teammate, The Biff is really struggling this week as well. He ended up 25th on the average speed chart and starts 22nd. Biffle has a couple of top fives at Sonoma, but I don’t expect anything close to that this weekend. His average career finish here is 14.9, but I actually expect that to go down after the checkered flag waves on Sunday. There are better weeks to use the #16.
David Ragan – The #6 Ford has had some impressive runs this season, but don’t expect one this weekend. Ragan’s average finish at Infineon is 27.8 and he’s never finished better than 24th. Add in the fact that he qualified in 34th and all signs point to avoiding David Ragan this weekend.
Matt Kenseth – Just avoid the entire Roush-Fenway stable this weekend. Matt had an 8th-place finish here back in 2008, but that has been his only top ten in eleven starts at Sonoma. Starting in 33rd, Kenseth is going to have to pass a bunch of cars to come to the front on Sunday, but while he is used to poor qualifying efforts, I don’t see Matt surprising anybody this weekend.
David Reutimann – Reutty has been disappointing fantasy owners all season, and I don’t expect that to change this weekend. He’s not running well at the tracks he’s expected to, so why would one think he will have a good run on a track like Sonoma–where David’s average career finish is 30.3? The #00 Toyota starts 32nd and may challenge for a top 20 at best.
The Ringers – Andy Pilgrim, Chris Cook, Brian Simo, David Mayhew, P.J. Jones: avoid ‘em all. As I , said before, the only two ringers that I think could potentially have good runs this weekend are Boris Said and Robby Gordon, and they may need some luck for that to happen. Ringers used to be a good pick when the series races at road courses, but the Cup regulars have really caught up.
My (Tentative) Fantasy NASCAR Picks:
OnPitRow.com: Favorite – Marcos Ambrose, Darkhorse – Marcos Ambrose
Yahoo!: A-List: Jeff Gordon, B-List: Marcos Ambrose & A.J. Allmendinger, C-List: Boris Said
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live: Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Juan Montoya, Marcos Ambrose, Andy Lally
Racing4Glory.com “The Showdown”: Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Marcos Ambrose, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman