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FANTASY: Thinking Outside the Oval

Thursday, June 21, 2012
Marcos Ambrose's only Cup win came on a road course last August at Watkins Glen. Photo: Getty Images

Toyota/Save Mart 350 Fantasy Preview

For those of you that missed the announcement, Infineon Raceway is no more.  Oh, there's still a road course that winds through the vineyards of the Sonoma Valley, it just no longer goes by the same name.

On June 1, the raceway's 10-year partnership with the Infineon company ended, and it is still in the rebranding process as it tries to find a track sponsor.  For the 2012 NASCAR race, it will simply go by "Sonoma."

That's good news for many of us that tend to refer to it by its location anyway.  Especially here at the sister track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, we're more than used to going by location.  After all, barring a seismic shift in borderlines, New Hampshire is always going to be here.

Sonoma is adamant that there will be a rebranding effort with or without sponsorship this coming fall, but they won't do so until they've determined the direction in which they're going.

Luckily, the product on the track won't be changing and the raceway continues to be one of just two road course races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit.  While fans probably wouldn't want to see a whole season of road courses, the change in configuration creates a fun challenge for drivers and a unique viewing experience both on TV and in person.

There are some drivers that came up on these types of tracks, and this provides them the rare opportunity to get back to that road course lineage.  Meanwhile, other drivers really struggle to adapt to this approach.  Thanks to tracks like Sonoma, NASCAR haters aren't correct when they stereotype that you simply need to turn left!  This Sunday, right handed turns will make all the difference between being a road course pro or an average Joe.

In the case of fantasy NASCAR, it's very important to pay attention to which drivers know how to make those right turns.

Strategy: A road course race is far more dependent on the driver's ability than any other track.  In fact, there are some drivers that race only on the road courses.  It's unlikely that a driver with a poor road course history steps up to win this race, so stats are important this weekend.

A-List

Start

#14 Tony Stewart - With two wins and eight top-10s in 13 Sonoma starts, Smoke is one of the strongest on this course.  His 107.9 driver rating at this track is the second best in the series.

Jeff Gordon knows how to
win in Sonoma. (Getty)
#24 Jeff Gordon - Oh great, time for another "this is the week he turns it around" speech!  Seriously though, he has five wins and 12 top-fives in 19 starts to make for a series-best 8.7 average finish at Sonoma (his home track).

#48 Jimmie Johnson - He won at Sonoma in 2010 and has registered four of his top-10s at this track in the last six starts, so he seems to have figured it out.  Owners will just need to fight the internal battle of whether or not they have the allocations to use one this week.  He tends to be the only A-Lister that routinely commands all nine starts.

Park

#17 Matt Kenseth - One top-10 in 12 starts and an average finish of 21.5 at Sonoma suggests that the current points leader is best saved for an oval.

B-List

Start

#9 Marcos Ambrose - Allocations get tough to manage on the B-List, and Ambrose isn't an every week choice.   If you don't understand why his series-leading 108.8 driver rating at Sonoma makes him more or less a necessity to start, we need to go back past Allocation Management 101 to Finger Painting with Allocations.

#15 Clint Bowyer - His 85.1 Sonoma driver rating suggests that he doesn't spend too much time near the front, but he's always there at the end: four top-10s in six starts confirm as much.

#39 Ryan Newman - The Rocketman seems to excel at short tracks where the play with the gas and brake are of importance.  That technique is magnified on a road course and his 12.4 average finish at Sonoma speaks to his ability.

#42 Juan Pablo Montoya - JPM is another driver like Ambrose that provides some much needed relief for allocations.  His background in Formula 1 lends well to road course racing and a 104.0 driver rating at Sonoma backs that up.

Park

#27 Paul Menard - When you look at the standings, Menard is sitting right there in 14th.  At some point, it's going to make sense to start trying to use him when possible, but a career-high finish of 17 in four Sonoma starts renders him useless this week.

#88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Nothing kills the momentum of winning a race like a road course!  Junior has yet to register a top-10 in 12 Sonoma starts.

C-List

Start

#32 Boris Said - Here is one of the road course specialists that tends to only start here and at Watkins Glen. He has five top-10s in 12 Sonoma starts and will be a popular pick among the stat heads this weekend.

#55 Brian Vickers - Honestly, his 22.7 average finish at Sonoma with zero top-10s in six starts isn't anything about which to get excited.  However, he's a decent driver, he's on the C-List and he's not scheduled to start more than nine races this season, so there's plenty of reasons to start him.

Park

#43 Aric Almirola - In Almirola's one Sonoma start he finished 28th.  Given that was back in 2008, but let's just say that you shouldn't think outside the oval when there's a rare weekend that Almirola isn't the only decent option on the C-List.

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The picks in this blog are based around Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game and its standard scoring rules.  The preview is designed to provide suggestions, while still encouraging managers to make their own decisions.  Once sorted into Yahoo's A, B and C-Lists, they are organized based on car number and not directly associated with a rank value.

You can sign up and play for free, by visiting http://racing.fantasysports.yahoo.com.  If signed up, the "Fans of NHMS" group may be joined by clicking here.