Both of the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s wins have come on 2-mile ovals this season (Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and Michigan).
The last nine races at Sonoma have been won by a different driver each time. Only one driver enters the weekend with back-to-back top-fives on this track and three others have consecutive top 10s. Given the importance of strategy and track position, repeating at this track is incredibly difficult.
Those stats should predict a fresh face in Victory Lane, right?
Unfortunately a brief glance at the drivers with the best average finishes over the past three years reveals that the two dominators of 2018 – Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – head up the list. If a fantasy player thought this was going to be a good week to vary their NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster, it’s time to rethink that position.
There are a couple of surprises among recent top performers, but the cream tends to rise to the top of NASCAR events. Anchor this week’s team with solid marquee drivers and use dark horses as a way to differentiate those selections from the competition.
1. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 3.67)
Harvick won last year’s edition of this race, but it is not the first time he has run well at Sonoma. He finished fourth in 2015 and was sixth the following year. Making those runs even more impressive is the fact that he has started outside the top 10 in each event and had to drive his way through the field.
2. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 4.33)
Along with Harvick, Busch is the only other driver with a current three-race streak of top 10s at Sonoma. He won there in 2015, followed by a seventh and fifth in his last two outings. He may be a better value than Harvick this week, however, because he has an equally impressive record at Watkins Glen International with a second in 2015, a sixth in 2016 and a seventh last year.
3. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 6.33)
It has been three years since Busch scored a top five at Sonoma, but what he lacks in raw power is made up for in consistency. In his last seven attempts on this track, he has finished outside the top 10 only once and that was a 12th in 2014. He won on this track in 2011 and finished second in 2015.
4. Joey Logano (three-year average: 6.67)
It appeared Logano had found the handle on this track. He scored his first top five in 2015 when he crossed under the checkers fifth. That was followed by a third in 2016. Last year was difficult for the driver of the No. 22; he qualified poorly in 18th and managed to climb only to 12th at the checkers.
5. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 8.00)
Sometimes a switch seems to flip for a driver on a given track. That is what happened to Hamlin in 2016 when he was on his way to Victory Lane before contact from Tony Stewart in the final corner. He hung on to finish second – snapping a six-race streak of results outside the top 15 – and backed that up with a fourth last year.
6. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 10.67)
Newman’s consistency has aided in his making the top 10 list a few times this year and the same is true at Sonoma. Without a top five to his credit in the past five years, he has swept the top 15. That makes him a good utilitarian pick. He will probably not score maximum points, but is also unlikely to lose a lot at Sonoma.
6. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 10.67)
There are so many different things that can go wrong on a road course and Johnson has had too many disappointments in 2018 to make him a fantasy favorite. Sonoma and Watkins Glen reward skill behind the wheel over raw horsepower and handling, however, so there is still a chance that he could earn a top five if the team is mistake-free.
8. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 12.33)
Keselowski makes the top-10 list despite having a 19th-place finish in his three-year average. That indicates just how difficult it is to sustain momentum on road courses given the various strategies that play out in a given race. The good news for Keselowski fans is that he finally earned his first career top five in eight starts last year with a third.
9. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.67)
McMurray has been consistent recently at Sonoma, but that is a fairly new trait. In his first 12 starts on this track, he had two top fives and no other top 10s. His average finish before 2015 was 16.7 despite finishing fourth in the 2014 race. He was 11th in 2015, 17th in 2016, and 10th last year – so he could be a good value if he practices and qualifies well this weekend.
10. Paul Menard (three-year average: 13.33)
Some of Menard’s earliest racing experience came in the Trans-Am series and that seems to have stuck with him. While he barely makes the top-10 list this week, he is perhaps the most consistent driver in recent years with four results of 11th through 16th in the last five races. Now that Team Penske is supporting his effort with the Wood Brothers, he should easily contend for a top 10.
Pole Winner: This is a good week to go out on a limb where the pole sitter is concerned. McMurray has won two of the last five poles on this track, while his teammate Kyle Larson took the top spot last year. Two JTG-Daugherty Racing drivers also have recent poles with Marcos Ambrose securing one in 2012 and AJ Allmendinger leading the field to green in 2015.
Segment Winners: There is absolutely no way to determine who is going to take the segment wins this week because it will all come down to strategy at the close of each stage. Since Harvick and Kyle Busch have scored the most segment wins, however, you may as well keep riding that momentum.
“Dale Jr. Download” will air every Thursday the rest of the season after NASCAR America.
The 30-minute show will provide a condensed version of the Dirty Mo Radio podcast that is found online and features Earnhardt, NBC Sports’ newest NASCAR analyst, with Mike Davis and Matthew Dillner.
“Our approach with the TV show will be no different than our approach with the podcast – buddies hanging out, talking racing, sharing life stories, and telling jokes that may or may not be funny only to us,” Earnhardt said. “I’m having a lot of fun with the podcast, and we are excited to be bringing it to TV. If we have a guest join us, it’s only because they’re relevant to whatever has my attention that week. It could be a NASCAR driver, or it could be my plumber – depends on who’s more important to me that week. The Download is as transparent as I can be when it comes to my life and thoughts.”
Despite some car owners calling for NASCAR to use the All-Star aero package at additional Cup races this season, NASCAR announced Thursday it will not do so this year.
“What we want to do is to continue to deliver on that great racing product and to do that we need to spend the proper time talking to the engine builders, the (car manufacturers) and race teams to see what, if anything, we could do this year,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told NASCAR.com. “We all collectively felt like the best thing to do was to put additional effort into some potential tweaks and focus on 2019 vs. a race or two this season. Everyone is aligned on doing what is best for the fans.”
The package, which includes a restrictor plate, air ducts, a taller spoiler and the 2014 style splitter, was first used in the Xfinity Series last season at Indianapolis and used in that series at Pocono and Michigan. It will be employed again in that series at Indianapolis in September. It is not scheduled to be run in any other Xfinity races this season after that.
The reviews have been mixed for the package in the Xfinity Series. Indianapolis had closer racing, but Pocono saw the field get strung out. Some suggested that the cars were too slow at Pocono with the restrictor plate. The Xfinity cars ran closer at Michigan but passing was more difficult.
The challenge for Cup teams were many. Based on the charter agreement with NASCAR, since this was not a safety change, Cup teams had to approve the move because of the additional costs to them. Also, engine builders were involved in the conversations because they build engines weeks ahead of time and finding the right races proved limiting because the industry didn’t appear interested in running the package in the playoffs.
Michigan and Indianapolis were the two tracks most often mentioned as candidates to run this package again this season, but that raised an issue among some. They wanted to see what it could do on a 1.5-mile track after the All-Star Race, which provided closer racing than previous years but that event was broken into short segments of 30 laps or less.
There were questions about how well the package would be for a full fuel run. With only two 1.5-mile tracks left on the Cup schedule before the playoffs, those choices were limited. Eventually, it became too late for teams and engine builders to prepare for the July 1 race at Chicagoland Speedway. As time passed, it became more challenging for the package to be used at the July 14 event at Kentucky Speedway.
“One of the clear takeaways is that this is not something you would want to implement at every race track,” O’Donnell told NASCAR.com. “There are certain race tracks we want to potentially target. Finding the optimal horsepower-to-downforce ratio will be a key focal point to continue to improve the race package.
Even as NASCAR examined this matter, drivers raised different opinions.
Brad Keselowski was vocal at Michigan, raising concerns about running the package (and the restrictor plate) at more tracks.
“I think that package needs to remain solely at the All-Star race,’’ Keselowski said earlier this month. “A lot of the drivers in this sport are in a position where they chose Cup racing because of the demands the cars take to drive. I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers.
“I think if you put a package like this out there, like what we had at the Charlotte All-Star race, on a consistent basis that the best drivers in the world would no longer go to NASCAR. They’ll pick a different sport. That won’t happen overnight. That will happen over time. I think that would be a tragedy to this sport because the best race car drivers want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance. There’s no doubt that you make less of a difference in that configuration.’’
Denny Hamlin was encouraged by the package after the non-points race in May.
“As a driver, I had fun, I really did,’’ he said. “Didn’t have the fastest car, but at least there were moments where you had to be very strategic in what you had to do. It was a mix between a normal open race and a superspeedway. … I’d like to see it at a few other tracks. if it came this year, It would definitely be OK by me.’’
Even after the All-Star Race, O’Donnell said the focus was on 2019. Asked that night if the package could be used again this season, O’Donnell said: “I would never say never, but our intent is we’ve talked coming into this, was to try this here, then really take a deep dive into how do we make this the best package possible for 2019 if we liked what we saw.”
But as momentum built for the package — car owners Richard Childress and Roger Penske both said they would be for running it again this season.
“Anything that is good for our sport right now, which I think it would be, I’m for it,’’ Childress told NBC Sports in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I’m putting RCR aside and looking at the sport itself. If everybody in this garage will do that … put the sport first and we all go out and put the best show for the fans in the stands, that’s what we’ve got to do.’’
All-Star winner Kevin Harvick cautioned many to temper their excitement about the package after the exhibition race but agreed the event could be significant for NASCAR in years to come.
“I’d like to make sure we don’t jump and say this is the save all, do all package,” he said. “I’d like to see it slowly transformed into points paying races because I think the preparation level will be a little bit different from every team in the garage. I just want to make sure we cycle it in correctly, make sure it fits in well for the teams to be able to afford the things that need to be done to get the cars right.
“There’s a lot of things to balance. Tonight’s race was very aggressive, and this is the perfect spot to try stuff like this. I think as you look at the effort that the teams put in to make all this happen was pretty high. The chance that NASCAR and Marcus (Smith of Speedway Motorsports Inc.) and everybody took to put this into the All‑Star Race is brave, bold. I think when you look at NASCAR racing in five years, I think you’ll look back at tonight and say it looks like this and it all started here.”
After a weekend off, Cup teams are back in action at Sonoma Raceway for the first road course race of the season. While Cup teams turn left and right, Camping World Truck teams will race at Gateway Motorsports Park this weekend. Xfinity teams have the weekend off.
Here are the schedules for Cup and Truck this weekend:
(ALL TIMES ARE EASTERN)
FRIDAY, JUNE 22
At GATEWAY MOTORSPORTS PARK
1 – 9:30 p.m. — Truck garage open
3:35 – 4:25 p.m. — Truck practice (No TV)
5:35 – 6:25 p.m. — Truck practice (No TV)
7:35 – 8:25 p.m. — Final Truck practice (Fox Sports 2)
9 p.m. — ARCA race (FS2)
At SONOMA RACEWAY
11:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. — Cup garage open
2:40 – 3:55 p.m. — Cup practice (Fox Sports 1)
5:40 – 6:55 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1)
SATURDAY, JUNE 23
At GATEWAY MOTORSPORTS PARK
1 p.m. — Truck garage opens
5:45 p.m. — Truck qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (airs from 7-8 p.m. on FS1)
7 p.m. — Driver/crew chief meeting
8 p.m. — Driver introductions
8:30 p.m. — Villa Lighting delivers the Eaton 200; 160 laps/200 miles (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
At SONOMA RACEWAY
10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. — Cup garage open
2:45 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-vehicle/two rounds (FS1, Performance Racing Network)
4:30 p.m. — K&N Pro Series West race; 64 laps, 127.36 miles (airs at 6 p.m. ET June 28 on NBCSN)
SUNDAY, JUNE 23
At SONOMA RACEWAY
11 a.m. — Cup garage opens
1 p.m. — Driver/crew chief meeting
2:20 p.m. — Driver introductions
3 p.m. — Toyota/SaveMart 350; 110 laps, 218.9 miles, 350 kilometers (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)