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Morgan: Five Drivers That Could Break Through for First Sonoma Win

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series gets back to work after taking Father’s Day weekend off, they head to the west coast for the first road course race of the season, the Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

The 1.990 mile Sonoma Raceway, a 12 turn technical road course situated about 30 miles north of San Francisco, has played host to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 1989 and has gone through a series of changes since opening its doors 27 years ago. When the track was first placed on the schedule as a virtual replacement for the now-defunct Riverside International Raceway, it was a 2.52 mile course that used the drag strip as part of the course. However, in 1998, the track went through its first major reconfiguration, with an 890 foot chute placed between Turns 4 and 7, cutting off the “Carousel” section of the track and dropping the track length down to 1.949 miles. The track went through a final reconfiguration in 2001 with the installation of Turn 7a, which brought the track to its current 1.990 mile, 12 turn layout.

Over the years, there have been those who have taken to the road course like a duck to water and others that have struggled with the winding track in California wine country. In the last seven races at the track, there have been seven different winners, including those who finally broke through for their first road course win.

With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at some of the drivers who could break through this weekend for their first Sonoma win.

Joey Logano

Over the years, Logano has had his ups and downs at the California road course, cracking the top-10 twice during his stint with Joe Gibbs Racing and scoring his first top-five finish at the track last season with a fifth place finish after starting 19th. Coming into this weekend, Logano has one top-five finish and three top-10 finishes to his name in seven starts, along with one pole, 18 laps led, and an average finish of 14.3. While Sonoma hasn’t been his best track, the strength that Team Penske has shown this season could play to Logano’s advantage and he may just breakthrough for his first win at the track.

Kevin Harvick

California native Kevin Harvick has been able to win in his home state before with a win at Auto Club Speedway, but a win at the other California track, Sonoma Raceway, has eluded him throughout his career. When looking at his Sonoma statistics, Harvick’s finishes almost resemble a rollercoaster with the way he will get on a hot streak for a race or two and then struggle for a few races before picking his performance back up again.

Overall, Harvick has four top-five finishes, six top-10 finishes, 33 laps led, and an average finish of 15.1 in 15 starts at the track. As he comes off of a fourth place finish last season and top-five finishes in two of the last three races on the schedule, Sunday’s race could finally see Harvick claiming home state glory at a road course.

“I think the biggest difference between Sonoma and Watkins Glen is that the speeds are drastically different. Sonoma is a much tighter course with sharper corners and a lot less speed, where you don’t really even use fourth gear, unless you’re saving gas. It’s a much slower track than Watkins Glen and the tires fall off a lot more than they do at The Glen. So, you’ve got to get your car to technically be very good as it turns the corner, but also keep track of the forward grip as you go through a run,” said Harvick.

“The first thing I think of when we are going to Sonoma is that we are going road racing. It’s definitely the first road race of the year and Sonoma is a very technical, slower-type road course. I’ve been fortunate to race there for a long time and look forward to going there every year.”

Jamie McMurray

While McMurray has been fast in qualifying at Sonoma, his race finishes never seem to back up how well he has run at Sonoma over the years. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has started on pole three times in his career (2007, 2013, and 2014), but has only finished inside the top-five on two occasions. The first came in his second full time season in 2004 and the other 10 years later in 2014, leading 41 laps at the track throughout his career and obtaining an average finish of 16.2 in 13 starts. If McMurray can get his qualifying speed to translate to the race, the No. 1 team will be a threat on Sunday afternoon.

“I like everything about Sonoma! This has been one of my favorite tracks since my first year in (Sprint) Cup; it is just a super technical track. You’re never really wide open after about 10 laps on the track.  Sonoma to me is just about having good drive off the corners, it’s one of those tracks, in qualifying you can drive pretty hard, but really in that second round in qualifying-trim you can never really put the power down off turn seven and eleven and during the race that will happen the whole time. The guy that can manage that the best throughout the race will probably be the eventual winner,” said McMurray.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

It’s no surprise that Earnhardt and the road course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen aren’t the best of friends. For years, Earnhardt struggled to find speed at Sonoma in particular and his accident in a GT car in 2004 at the track didn’t help matters, but in the last couple of years, Earnhardt and his No. 88 team have found something at Sonoma to propel him to better finishes.

In his first 14 starts at the track, Earnhardt only managed to finish as high as 11th on three separate occasions, with the majority of the other finishes much lower than that. However, in 2014, things took a drastic turn for the better as he finished third to bring home both his first top-five and first top-10 finish of his career. Last year, Earnhardt backed up the third place finish with a seventh place finish to improve his average finish to a 19.4 in 16 starts, so it is logical to think that the team should be able to continue their momentum at Sonoma to possibly breakthrough for Earnhardt’s first road course win and first win of 2016.

“We used to test really hard to figure out how to get better at road courses. Now we just show up and race, and that’s really been refreshing … and it’s made the race weekends a lot more enjoyable. We’ve had great race cars at the road courses – we’ve gotten better as a company, which has helped me a lot and helped carry me. Sonoma is the most challenging track that I race at. We’ve just got to take care of our car and make it through to the end,” said Earnhardt.

AJ Allmendinger

When it comes to the road courses, one name always jumps to the top of everyone’s list to watch and that is AJ Allmendinger. Winner of the 2014 race at Watkins Glen, Allmendinger has run well at Sonoma, only to have victory snatched away for one reason or another.

In seven starts, Allmendinger has only managed to finish in the top-10 twice, with a seventh place finish in 2009 and a ninth place result in 2012. He has started on the front row in the last two races at the track, but mechanical issues have sidelined him both times and left him with a 37th place finish in 2014 and 2015. Overall, Allmendinger has an average finish of 21.9, but despite that the hometown driver will be looking to exorcise his demons en route to his first win at Sonoma Raceway.

“You try and go out there (Sonoma Raceway) and try to have the mindset that it’s just another weekend, but we know it’s not. There are a lot of great things going on out there.  It’s my home race. It’s a race that I grew up going to and I always enjoyed.  I think it’s one of the best racetracks that we have in the United States when it comes to road course racing.  It’s a home race for our sponsors Kingsford and Clorox.  We have a lot of people that show up from their home office in Oakland (Calif.), which is only an hour or so down the road.  We are also going to have Ralph’s on the car, which is a Kroger company, but it’s a home company and a store that I went to a lot growing up,” said Allmendinger.

“There is a lot of stuff that comes down to why it would be special to win.  In the end, it would be special because it gets you into the Chase.  You go out there and it makes the rest of the season just a little bit easier to prepare for the Chase.  Everybody has got that home race that stands out.  We know the biggest races in our sport, the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Southern 500, but for me, Sonoma is on top of the list, because that is a race that I have loved.  I have family and friends coming to the race and it would be a special moment to go out there and be able to share that and spend that in Victory Lane.  You can’t get ahead of yourself.  It’s such a tough and difficult race.  Although we have been fast there, if you look at my stats they are not very good just because there is a lot of bad luck.  There are a lot of ups and downs during the race whether it comes with cautions or the way the tires are used there – – the strategy.  It’s a long ways to get there, but I know when we show up we are going to have a good car and we are going to have a good shot to win it.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.

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