NASCAR’s Sonoma 2013 road course ringers, analyzed

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There’s two road races for NASCAR this weekend, as different as wine and cheese. Literally.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its annual jaunt out west to Napa Valley and wine country, at Sonoma Raceway. The track’s also been known as Sears Point and Infineon Raceway, and when Infineon’s naming rights expired the track settled on Sonoma Raceway … which isn’t bad, but is to those who sought a return to its Sears Point roots.

Meanwhile, the NASCAR Nationwide Series heads up north to Elkhart Lake, Wis.’s Road America, which basically doubles as America’s “National Park of Speed.” It’s a 4-plus mile road course that is as well known for its track food – because who doesn’t love a Johnsonville brat and cheese? – as its racing.

We’ll look through the “ringers” in Sprint Cup’s Toyota/Save Mart 350K first, then hit the Nationwide folks in another post.

  • Justin Marks, No. 7 GoPro Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing. It’s his series debut and the team’s road course setup has never been particularly strong in the past. That said, a top-20 finish would be an excellent result for team and driver.
  • Alex Kennedy, No. 19 MediaMaster/Dream Factory Toyota, Humphrey Smith Racing. Like Marks, will be Kennedy’s first start in Sprint Cup. The team – as the rest of the NASCAR community – has a heavy heart this week after Jason Leffler’s passing, as this was the team he drove for a couple weeks ago. For Kennedy, a clean race is the goal and perhaps a top-25 finish if the cards fall right.
  • Boris Said, No. 32 HendrickCars.com Ford, FAS Lane Racing. Said’s one of NASCAR’s oldest and most notable “ringers,” and is best known in recent years for these comments he made about Greg Biffle at Watkins Glen.  On-track, Said has 45 prior Sprint Cup starts and drove to an eighth-place finish with Frank Stoddard, now his team boss, as his crew chief at Sonoma in 2010. Miracles can happen but the best I’d expect for “Said Head nation” – if there is one – is a top-15.
  • Ron Fellows, No. 33 Canadian Tire Chevrolet, Circle Sport Racing. The popular Canadian missed the road course races a year ago and his last top-10 was a fourth-place at Watkins Glen in 2007. A top-10 for Fellows this week though, is not impossible.
  • Victor Gonzalez Jr., No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing. The Puerto Rican will make his Sprint Cup debut in TBR’s second car. Has a handful of road course starts in the Nationwide ranks; like Marks, anything close to the top-20 would be respectable.
  • Jacques Villeneuve, No. 51 TAG Heuer Eyewear Chevrolet, Phoenix Racing. Get your popcorn ready. Villeneuve’s been entirely too aggressive in his Nationwide starts for Penske Racing, and he hasn’t driven a Sprint Cup race since 2010. Finch had “a rebel” in Kurt Busch in this car last year and Busch wheeled it to third – if Villeneuve (pictured above) keeps his head and doesn’t ram too many cars off the track, he could match that. Key word there is “if.”
  • Paulie Harraka, No. 52 HASA Pool Products Ford, Keselowski Racing. Frankly, Harraka has done nothing in NASCAR Camping World Trucks to warrant a step up to this level. He’ll make his debut but anything further than a start-and-park would surprise.
  • Tomy Drissi, No. 87 The Wolverine Movie – Corn, Nemechek Racing. A sports car veteran, Drissi’s driven Porsches, Corvettes and prototypes this year. He won’t set the world on fire but if he keeps it clean, he could make it to the top-25.

Marvin Musquin’s Indy win may have come too late

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Marvin Musquin answered one question at Indianapolis last week, but the biggest one may well plague him for the next six weeks.

Musquin has won a battle, but can he win the war?

After standing on the podium in eight of the first 10 races, Musquin finally showed the field he was capable of winning in Indy when he grabbed the holeshot and led every lap on the way to Victory Lane. He was never seriously challenged and it was the Musquin that Supercross fans expected to see all season.

It was a long time coming. Musquin must have felt like victory was just around the corner after finishing second in the overall standings in Anaheim II’s Triple Crown race. He was third in the first Main that night and second in the last two Mains.

As it turned out, that single race defined his season until last week. Musquin stood on the podium all night, but he finished two spots behind Cooper Webb in the first Main and was one spot back in the second. It was only as time ran out that he was able to beat Webb by a single spot in the third Main. If Musquin had won either of the first two Mains, he would have had the overall victory – denying Webb his first career win in the process.

Webb’s Anaheim win revitalized the rider and gave him the confidence to rattle off four more wins in the next seven races.

Meanwhile, Musquin scored podium finishes in the next seven races, making him almost perfect. In another season, a record like that would have been enough to give him a comfortable points lead. In 2019, he sit 14 markers out of first, which is the points’ equivalent of the difference between first and 11th in one race. In other words, Webb cannot lose the points lead at Seattle unless he finishes outside the top 10 while his teammate wins.

Looking at the numbers another way the scenario is not quite as hopeless. Musquin needs to shave only 2.3 points off Webb’s lead each week to win the championship. Three points separate first and second. Five points differentiates first from third, which is where Webb finished in Indianapolis. Webb is vulnerable as his 10th-place finish at Glendale and an eighth at San Diego attest.

Those bobbles came early and Webb seems to have forgotten how to make a mistake.

A third-place is Webb’s worst finish in the last six weeks and since Anaheim II when Musquin started his impressive string of podium finishes, Webb has recorded an average finish of 2.2. That came with a worst finish of eighth on an extremely muddy and heavy track in San Diego. Musquin has a worst finish of only sixth, but his average of 2.8 still lags behind Webb.

Worse still, since Anaheim II Musquin has finished behind Webb in every race except for the outlier of San Diego.

It is no longer a question of keeping pressure on Webb. Musquin cannot expect his teammate to make a mistake; he has to find a way to pass him on the track. If Webb adds only two points to his lead at Seattle, Musquin’s fate would no longer be in his hands. He would need to gain 3.2 points per race. With that scenario, Webb could finish one spot behind Musquin every week and still win the championship.