Who will make the first right turn into Victory Lane this season?
Road-course races like Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway have produced some of the most memorable fireworks in the Sprint Cup Series during recent seasons.
A win comes with the added benefit of an all-but certain berth in the Chase and that is especially enticing to underdog teams. These teams are on a more even playing field this season with their high-dollar competition on superspeedways and road courses.
That dynamic expands the potential victory pool and with it, the intensity of the race.
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“It’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for a lot of drivers,” said Clint Bowyer, one of several drivers who have road-course victories but still are looking for their first win of 2014.
“That’s why it’s a dangerous race.”
With 11 races left before the 16-driver Chase field is set, 10 drivers have at least one win and are in position to contend for the series championship.
The road-course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, N.Y., as well as next month’s restrictor-plate race at Daytona Beach, Fla., offer the best chance for a surprise entry.
There are plenty of viable candidates.
Martin Truex Jr. ended a career-worst 218-race winless streak with his victory at Sonoma a year ago. A repeat not only would provide the first win for his new team, Furniture Row Racing, but also likely would cement a second consecutive trip to the Chase for the organization.
“As far as being the defending (race) champion, it’s a great feeling. It definitely gives you a lot of confidence, but you have to be careful with that,” Truex explained.
“You can’t get stuck on what you did last year and what did we have in the race car. This is a new season. The rules are a lot different and the cars are a lot different. You have to be open-minded.”
A.J. Allmendinger, a former open-wheel driver who won a pair of Nationwide Series road-course races last season, is hoping to provide JTG Daugherty with its first Cup win and trip to the Chase.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t come in here with the mindset that we have a shot to win this thing. But at the same time, the Sprint Cup Series every weekend, it is so tough now,” Allmendinger said.
“It is a lot different than 10, 15 years ago when I thought you looked at the series and said maybe there are five, or eight or 10 guys at most that can win on a road course race.”
Allmendinger’s addition to the organization this season as well as its technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing have significantly improved the performance of the single-car team.
“We have the potential of being good. Are we there yet? No,” Allmendinger said. “On our best weekends like this, can we go win a race? I think we can, but are we going to have weekends to where the last couple of weeks we just struggled to run 20th?
“That is the nature of what we are up against.”
The potential payoff of the victory for small teams is enormous.
Even if a team like JTG Daugherty can’t handle the rigors of the 10-race Chase, earning an opportunity to compete for the championship is a victory in itself.
“It’s so hard to be great every week for 26 weeks. When I saw the new (Chase) format, I thought it would put us with an equal chance,” said JTG Daugherty co-owner Tad Geschickter.
“Everyone knows once those last 10 races come around, it’s all about those guys competing for the championship. More so for our sponsors, who have stuck by us, it would be great to get that full level of exposure for all 36 races.
“I can’t even fathom what it would do for us.”