Stewart, Montoya will contend for first wins of 2011 at Sonoma
Despite the beauty of Sonoma, most Sprint Cup drivers loathe racing at the track
NASCAR should include a road race in the Chase or get rid of them completely
Expect to see Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya at the front of the pack Sunday
The majority of NASCAR drivers love everything about the Sonoma Valley in northern California. When they're not on the track at Infineon Raceway -- one of two road courses on the Sprint Cup schedule -- drivers take their families on lazy field trips into the rolling countryside, visit wineries and shop at those charming boutiques that seem to be around every bend. Yes, this is one race weekend that virtually every NASCAR wife circles before the start of the season.
"It is almost half a vacation and half a race weekend for us," says Tony Stewart, who has won two times at Sonoma. "All the teams and the crew guys, the drivers, the girlfriends and wives, everybody has a good time out there."
Yet the majority of NASCAR drivers loathe everything about racing at Sonoma. Aside from the few road course aces in the series -- Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Gordon and Marcos Ambrose -- drivers, by and large, are not fans of the 11-turn, 1.99 mile layout at Sears Point. Why? Because NASCAR was built on racing on ovals, and the majority of drivers spent their youths mastering ovals and they firmly believe that road courses have no place in stock car racing.
They have a point, of course. If NASCAR really believed road courses were important, the sanctioning body would put Sonoma or Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, the other road course on the schedule, in the Chase. As it stands, a driver can be terrible on road courses and still win the title. That's why the majority of drivers simply try to survive Sonoma with a top-15 run, which won't cause a free fall in the points standings, and then move on to Daytona next week for the unofficial start to the second half of the season.
I've written this before, but I'll hammer the point again: NASCAR should either eliminate road courses from the schedule or include one in the Chase. I'd like to see Watkins Glen get a Chase date in place of one of the five intermediate-length tracks currently in the 10-race playoff (I'd vote to say goodbye to Chicagoland Speedway). This would force drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and others who struggle on road courses to invest time in learning the art of road racing. But right now they have zero incentive.
It would be an upset if either Earnhardt (career average finish at Sonoma: 20.5) or Kenseth (22.2) were to be among the leaders when the laps wind down on Sunday. Here are the five drivers with the best chance of taking the checkers:
1. Tony Stewart
This is the time of the season when Stewart typically comes alive. No driver likes hot, slick surfaces more than Stewart, which is why he flourishes in the steamy summer months. If Stewart, currently 11th in the standings, doesn't rise dramatically in the points over the next 10 weeks, most in the garage would consider that a surprise.
Sonoma is one of Stewart's best tracks on the circuit. In 12 career starts, he's won twice and, incredibly, has completed every lap of every race (1,331). Though Stewart recently removed Bobby Hutchens as his competition direction at Stewart-Haas Racing and replaced him with Matt Boreland, the internal upheaval shouldn't impact Stewart's performance this weekend. He's my pick to win.
2. Juan Pablo Montoya
It's likely that the only way Montoya, who is 18th in the standings, will make the Chase is if he wins two races between now and the regular season-finale at Richmond in September, which would enable him to sneak into the playoff as a wild-card. Montoya will have an excellent shot at the checkers at three of the remaining 11 tracks before the start of the Chase: Sonoma, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen.
A former open-wheel winner in Formula One and IndyCar, Montoya excels on road courses. He earned his first Sprint Cup victory at Sonoma in 2007 and in four career starts at the Northern California track he's never finished outside of the top-10. He should be very, very formidable on Sunday, especially because he knows the stakes are high.
3. Jeff Gordon
Gordon hasn't won three or more races in a season since 2007, but on Sunday he should have a wonderful shot at taking his third checkered flag of 2011. He's won at Sonoma five times and been ruthlessly consistent at the track his entire career: In 18 career starts, he has 14 top-10 finishes.
4. Marcos Ambrose
Driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Ambrose has never won a race in his three-year Cup career, but he'll likely be a contender on Sunday. A native of Australia, Ambrose grew up racing on road courses. He won three consecutive Nationwide races at the Watkins Glen road course from 2008 to '10 and he's finished sixth or better in his last two Cup starts at Sonoma. So far two drivers have captured their first career wins this season -- Trevor Bayne at Daytona and Regan Smith at Darlington -- and don't be surprised if Ambrose joins the first-timers club on Sunday.
5. Jimmie Johnson
A week after one of his worst races in recent memory -- Jimmie Johnson finished 27th at Michigan on Sunday and was never even within a country mile of being a factor in the event -- the five-time defending champ comes to Sonoma as the reigning race winner. Johnson has worked hard to improve his road racing skills over the years. Early in his career, he looked lost at Sonoma, as he finished 35th and 17th in his first two starts in wine country.