Toyota/Save Mart 350 Practice Recap: Drivers to Watch
After visiting Pocono and Michigan the past two weekend, the Cup Series will take a break from the 200 mph speeds when it visits Sonoma Raceway this Sunday. Rather than an emphasis on top-end speed, the 10-turn road course challenges a driver’s ability to hit their marks and braking points through both left and right-hand turns while also dealing with elevation changes and several different combination corners. Needless to say, just staying on the track can be challenging for some drivers, but even the top road racers in the series need their cars to be handling well in order to have a successful day. After all, there are only a handful of excellent passing opportunities at Sonoma, and drivers have to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to gain a spot whenever they. With that in mind, here is a closer look at a few of the drivers that were impressive on the practice sheets Friday at Sonoma that fantasy owners may want to make room for on their rosters this weekend.
1. Marcos Ambrose: He got off to a fast start at Sonoma Friday, topping the charts in the opening practice, and Ambrose followed it up by cracking the top 10 in Happy Hour. Of course, the fast times are nothing new for him at Sonoma. Ambrose has four-straight top-10 finishes at the track, and he has nine-straight top-10s overall at road course events. During the stretch, Ambrose has logged two wins, seven top-five finishes and a series-leading 3.6 average finish. Plain and simple, the guy has been a road racing stud, and he appears headed for another excellent performance. Get this guy in your lineup.
2. Juan Pablo Montoya: Montoya flexed plenty of muscle in the practice sessions at Sonoma Friday. After turning the second-fastest lap in the opening practice, he ranked fifth on the charts in Happy Hour to go along with the best 10-lap average speed. Keep in mind that Montoya won at Sonoma in his track debut, and in six starts, he has four top-10s. Not to mention the fact that both of his career Cup wins to date have come at road courses. Montoya’s open-wheel racing experience has definitely paid dividends when it comes to handling road races, and while he is a shaky option most weeks, he is a potential top-five play Sunday in Sonoma. 3. Kurt Busch: Fast cars are becoming the norm for Busch in recent weeks, and he didn’t disappoint during practice Friday at Sonoma. He ranked fourth on the charts in the first session and posted the seventh-fastest lap in Happy Hour. The strong showing in practice is a great sign for a driver that won at Sonoma in 2011 and finished third the next year with a different team. Busch will be driving for his third team in three years this weekend, but he has already shown his road racing skills will shine through in just about any equipment. Don’t be surprised if he makes a run at a top-five finish on Sunday.
4. Clint Bowyer: Apparently, Bowyer wanted to make it very clear that his win at Sonoma last year was no fluke. After posting the eighth-fastest lap in the first practice, he jumped to the top of the charts in Happy Hour. Of course, Bowyer should be a rock solid fantasy option this weekend, even if he doesn’t make it back-to-back wins at Sonoma. He has finished eighth or better five times in his last six starts at the track, notching four finishes of fourth or better during the stretch. It’s time to recognize Bowyer as one of the better road racers in the series, and it’s time to add him to fantasy rosters this weekend.
5. Jeff Gordon: Although his practices times weren’t overwhelming, they were solid enough considering his career numbers at Sonoma. Gordon ranked 11th in the first practice Friday and 10th in Happy Hour, and he appears on track to pad his impressive Sonoma resume. His 8.6 average finish at the track is the best in the series, and his five victories are the most all-time. In 20 career starts at Sonoma, Gordon has piled up 16 top-10s, including seven straight. Fantasy owners won’t find a safer, more-proven option this weekend.
6. Greg Biffle: While Biffle is still searching for a road course win, he is still worthy of a spot on fantasy rosters this weekend. For one, he posted the sixth-fastest lap in both practice sessions at Sonoma Friday. In addition, Biffle has posted nine top-15 finishes in his last nine starts at the track and has finished seventh twice in his last three starts. If you are looking for a top-five finish this weekend, Biffle probably isn’t the best pick. However, he should finish somewhere in or around the top 10, making him a great addition to rosters in most formats.
7. Jamie McMurray: For fantasy owners that like to gamble a bit, McMurray is a very intriguing option. After all, he posted the fifth-fastest lap in the first practice at Sonoma Friday, and he vaulted to second on the charts in Happy Hour. On the flip side, he has managed just one top-10 finish in 10 starts at the track, but he has managed to sneak into the top 15 in three of the last four races. His practice times suggest a much better performance is on tap for McMurray this weekend, and owners willing to overlook his average career numbers could be rewarded nicely.
8. Joey Logano: The young driver has been making strides at Sonoma the last couple of years, and he could continue the trend this weekend. Logano posted the 10th-fastest lap in the first practice at the track Friday and moved up a spot to ninth in Happy Hour. Meanwhile, he has finished inside the top 10 in his last two starts at Sonoma so his practice times may not be a fluke. Granted, the sample size isn’t huge, but Logano has been trending in the right direction at Sonoma and appears to have a fast car once again. If you are going to take a chance on a bit of an unconventional pick, he isn’t a bad option.
9. Casey Mears: Fantasy owners looking for a sleeper in deeper leagues may want to consider Mears. He made a serious statement in the opening practice at Sonoma Friday, turning the third-fastest lap. He didn’t slow down a ton in Happy Hour either, logging the 12th-best lap. Perhaps just as importantly, he managed a top-15 finish at Sonoma last year while driving for Germain Racing. Mears is back with the single-car team this season, and if he can repeat his performance, fantasy owners are looking at a steal of pick. Heck, a top-20 finish would even be a useful result from a guy like Mears, and his practice times suggest that is well within reach.
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