Stewart, Montoya will contend for first wins of 2011 at Sonoma
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
Yet the majority of NASCAR drivers loathe everything about racing at Sonoma. Aside from the few road course aces in the series -- Stewart,
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
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:
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
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.
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.
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 --
A week after one of his worst races in recent memory --