The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will do a little road course racing this weekend at Sonoma Raceway. The 12-turn course will test drivers in ways traditional ovals can’t, and Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 will also but fantasy owners to the test.
On one hand, a road course can be a golden opportunity to save some starts from the top options at Fantasy Live and the Driver Group Game. Road racing is a unique skill, and there are a few midrange and lower-tier drivers that enjoy a significant boost in value at road courses like Sonoma.
That being said, pit strategy can play a big role in the outcome at road courses. The fact that drivers can pit under green without losing a lap allows crew chiefs to deploy a variety of strategies, which can jumble up the running order at any point. This could really come into play in Fantasy Live. If a caution falls toward the end of either of the first two stages, it could really cause some chaos and lead to some unexpected drivers earning stage points and some big names missing out.
This is another reason that I’ll be sprinkling in some alternative options this weekend, particularly in the Driver Group Game that runs all 36 races rather than just the first 26 like Fantasy Live. I do not want to use up a start from one of the top guys and then watch them miss out on stage points or end up with a mediocre finish because the race comes down to strategy calls.
For Slingshot, I’m loading up on the small group of road course studs who caught a tough break in qualifying. There was a lot of speedy dry on the track at one point, which resulted in many drivers waiting to qualifying and eventually an overcrowded track. This caused a lot of fast cars to post mediocre laps, so there are several great options with a lot of place differential upside. I suggest taking advantage.
Check out all my Fantasy NASCAR picks for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, and make sure to get your lineups locked in for the first road course event of 2018.
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live
Bowyer has proven to be a valuable fantasy contributor at all tracks this year, but he’s a stud at road courses. He finished in the Top 5 in both road course events last season, and he has eight Top 10s and six Top 5s in his last 10 starts at Sonoma. He had a bad break in qualifying and will start 19th, but with a car that was one of the best in practice, Bowyer should still be able to pile up plenty of stage points and eventually contend for the win.
Road racing might not be his specialty, but Johnson has sure been reliable at Sonoma. He has cracked the Top 15 in his last 10 starts here, compiling an 8.0 average finish and notching seven Top 10s. His seventh-place qualifying effort boosts his chance on grabbing some early stage points, and he has already shown a knack for solid finishes. I think this could be a great week to get a useful point total out of Johnson while I save a start from one of the elite fantasy options.
He has been a stud at the road courses the last two years, reeling off four straight Top 5s and leading double-digit laps three times in that span. Last year, Hamlin finished sixth or better in three of the four stages at the road courses. He jumped to second on the charts in Happy Hour, and while I don’t love his starting spot, I think he has enough speed to get the front and get some stage points.
Allmendinger knows that a road course win could be his ticket to the playoffs, but the pressure to have to win makes him a high-risk, high-reward pick. He has three finishes of 30th or worse in the last 10 road races, but he has led more laps than any other driver in that span. Allmendinger earned points in three of the four stages at the road courses last year, finishing second in Stage 1 at Sonoma. Starting fifth, I think he is worth the gamble.
McMurray has been steady at the road courses, reeling off three straight Top 15s and seven in his last nine starts. He’s also shown a ton of speed this weekend, qualifying fourth and cracking the Top 5 in both practices. That speed and track position could translate to a lot of stage points, and he has shown a safe floor as far as finishes go.
Garage Driver – Martin Truex Jr.
I’m hoping to not need Truex this weekend, but McMurray, Allmendinger and Johnson haven’t been sure things this year, and Bowyer and Hamlin are starting in the middle of the pack. Meanwhile, Truex starts on the front and led the most laps at both road course events last year, winning at Watkins Glen. Yes, I think he is more valuable at the faster ovals, but at the end of the day, points are points. If he wins the first two stages or one of my drivers has major issues, I’ll swap him in.
Fantasy Racing Cheat Sheet Driver Group Game
I haven’t been shy about using Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. this year, but Sonoma is a track where I think I can save a start and still grab a Top 5. I’m not thrilled about how qualifying played out for Hamlin, but he has finished fourth or better in four straight road course events and showed excellent speed in practice. I think he will get to the front. More importantly, I think Harvick, Busch and Truex are too far ahead of the competition at the bigger ovals to use this weekend at a road course.
Feel free to save Bowyer if you are running low on starts, but with six uses remaining, I’m using him this weekend. He has seven Top 10s in the last 10 road course races, including finishes of second and fifth last year. He also has eight Top 10s in the last 10 starts at Sonoma. Bowyer was stout in practice, and I’m not worried about his 19th-place starting spot. I think he will get to the front when it counts.
I really thought about rolling the dice on Allmendinger, but while I’ll gamble on his stage point upside in Fantasy Live, there isn’t as much of an incentive to take a chance on him in this format. I also considered Kurt Busch, but with just four starts left, I’d rather save him for a high-speed oval since this format lasts all 36 races, especially after a lackluster qualifying effort from Busch. That leaves me with McMurray, who has quietly notched seven Top 15s in the last nine road course races. He also cracked the Top 5 in both practices and will start fourth. He looks like a great play this weekend.
Normally, the Hendrick Motorsports drivers are the only Group C options with a decent chance at a Top 15 finish, but McDowell can flat out wheel a car on a road course. He has four Top 20s in the last five road courses events, including Top 15s in both races last year. He qualified 22nd, but McDowell cracked the Top 10 in both practices Friday. I think he will deliver the best finish out of the Group C options Sunday, and he will allow me to save a start from one of the HMS drivers.