We’re at the first of two road course stops this season, Sonoma Raceway. Back about ten years ago or so, it seemed like pure talent (“road course ringers”) on these tracks could get you a good finish, but things have changed since then–something I’ll comment on later in this article. On Friday, there were two practice sessions before qualifying on Saturday. Here you will find the full practice results/speeds: Practice #1 — Happy Hour. As always, Ryan compiled thorough notes for each practice, and those are here: Practice #1 — Happy Hour. Jamie McMurray grabbed the pole for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 and the full starting lineup can be found by clicking here.
To be honest with you, these races are pretty cut-and-dry, and that’s the reason why this article will seem shorter than it usually is. The normal names will be up front, and there won’t be many (if any) surprises. What I don’t like about road courses are they have come simply about strategy: as soon as the green flag waves, crew chiefs will work backward on fuel and plan the race accordingly. Also, it’s not uncommon for drivers to spin on course and there be no caution, something that is sometimes impossible to come back from. This isn’t the week to get cute with your roster; pick the “stud” drivers and enjoy the race.
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Final Top 15 Ranking For The Toyota/Save Mart 350:
11. Tony Stewart – Starts 11th – Yahoo! A Group
**Risk Factor: Low Risk**
The #14 team was struggling with the car in practice on Friday, but you have to believe that they’ll get that machine figured out before (or during) the race on Sunday. Smoke is generally a good pick at Sonoma and his road course talent gives him the edge over some of the other drivers ranked behind him this weekend. He’s a two-time winner at this track and finished 2nd here behind Clint Bowyer one year ago. In five of the last six races here, Stewart has ended up inside the top 10 when the checkered flag waves, and I’d bet that happens once again on Sunday in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
12. Carl Edwards – Starts 3rd – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
Edwards qualified 3rd for Sunday’s race so he’s going to be a pretty popular pick on Sunday in most leagues. He finished 3rd here in 2011 but has a career average finish of just 17.1, and you should know by now that it’s hard to watch this team in practice because they don’t make many long runs. Yeah, Carl can put down one fast lap, but how much will his car fall off during a run? Edwards will start up front but I see him finishing in the teens when it’s all said and done. One good thing that Carl does have to his credit is his record at Watkins Glen (9.4 average finish in eight starts). There are just too many other (better) drivers that could be picked this weekend instead of Edwards.
13. Brad Keselowski – Starts 18th – Yahoo! A Group
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
Watkins Glen is the better road course venue for the 2012 champ, but Bad Brad isn’t terrible at Sonoma. He got his first top 10 here in 2011 and followed that up with a 12th-place finish last season. The Blue Deuce was 7th in first practice on Friday and ended up 15th in Happy Hour. What I didn’t like out of Keselowski this weekend was that his ten-lap average wasn’t that great in the final practice, but he could have been on old tires or something. As I said before, these races are generally strategy events, and Paul Wolfe is one of the best in the business when it comes to that. Going into the race I think the #2 Ford is a 12th-15th place car but BK gets a bump because of his crew chief.
14. Matt Kenseth – Starts 6th – Yahoo! A Group
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
Kenseth gets this ranking over guys like Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne because of his qualifying effort on Saturday. The #20 Toyota wasn’t overly impressive on the speed charts Friday but you can’t ignore the 6th-place starting spot. As far as his track record at Sonoma, Kenseth definitely has some room for improvement: in thirteen career starts here, he has an average finish of 20.9 and just one top 10 to his credit. He should get a bump in the rankings due to how awesome this team has been all season, but I’m sticking with my opinion of the #20 being a teens car on Sunday. There are a lot of other drivers that I’d pick before Kenseth this weekend, but he could surprise.
15. Casey Mears – Starts 21st – Yahoo! C Group
**Risk Factor: High Risk**
Surprised? Don’t be. Casey Mears finished 15th in this race one year ago and followed that up with a 16th-place effort at Watkins Glen back in August. Still not convinced? The #13 Ford has been stronger and more reliable all season long, and Mears posted the 3rd-best lap in first practice on Friday. He followed that up with the 12th-fastest lap in Happy Hour, and although Casey’s ten-lap average wasn’t great in that final practice session, you can’t expect the world from a guy like this. Still, he’s a nice sleeper pick this weekend and the #13 should challenge for a top 15 on Sunday.
What About The Ringers?
As I said earlier, “road course ringers” used to be great values in fantasy racing. However, now they’re stuck in bottom-tier equipment and usually can’t get through a race without something breaking (or the team making a mistake). Also, the Cup regulars have simply caught up when it comes to these road course race tracks.
There are quite a few “ringers” in the field this weekend, or drivers I’ve never really heard of (I kind of use those descriptions interchangeably). There’s Jacques Villeneuve (in the #51, qualified 22nd), Boris Said (in the #32, qualified 24th), Ron Fellows (in the #33, qualified 25th), Justin Marks (in the #7, qualified 36th), Alex Kennedy (in the #19, qualified 39th), Paulie Harraka (in the #52, qualified 40th), Tomy Drissi (in the #87, qualified 41st), and Victor Gonzalez, Jr. (in the #36, qualified 43rd). Really, the only drivers I would even somewhat consider this weekend are Villeneuve, Said, and Gonzalez, and I rank them in that order. They have the equipment that is somewhat reliable and could sneak inside the top 20 before it’s all said and done.