Sonoma gives sleepers a Chase chance

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Martin Truex Jr.'s Sonoma win last season would've been enough to make the Chase.Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway has a whole new level of importance this year. Based on the new Chase rules, which make wins, instead of points, the top priority for making the Chase, a single win all but guarantees you a shot to race for the championship.

Only the top-16 drivers in wins (or top 15 plus the points leader if the points leader is winless on the season) will make the Chase. But in NASCAR’s modern era, dating back to 1972, there’s never been more than 16 winners in the first 26 races of the season. Once, in 2003, there were 16 winners, but the points leader was among those 16. So historically, a single win should lock a driver into the Chase, provided he stays in the top 30 in points.

Here are three things to keep an eye on when pondering a winner at Sonoma.

No Experience Necessary

Most Road Course Wins
NASCAR Cup Series History

Nobody has more wins on road courses in NASCAR Cup Series history than Jeff Gordon (nine) and Tony Stewart (seven), but recently, there have been unexpected winners at Sonoma.

Each of the past seven winners at the track had never previously won a road-course race in the Sprint Cup Series. That list does contain a former Formula 1 driver (Juan Pablo Montoya) along with two drivers who had already won a Cup Series championship (Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson).

Each of the past two winners have driven for Michael Waltrip Racing, giving them two of the team’s seven all-time Cup wins.

New Name Breaking Through

Ten drivers have won Cup Series races this season, although each of the past three races have been won by drivers who won earlier in the year.

The numbers point to a new face in Victory Lane this weekend, as each of the past three, and seven of the last nine Sonoma winners picked up their first victory of season.

Don’t expect them to be done winning, though. Among that group, only Montoya (2007) and Martin Truex Jr. (2013) didn’t win another race that season.

If You Need a Favorite

Despite having won twice at Watkins Glen, Marcos Ambrose is winless for his Cup career at Sonoma. He’s among the drivers who won’t be able to think about the Chase without a win, as he enters the weekend 23rd in points.

Most Fastest Laps Run on Road Courses
Since Start of 2009 Season

Dating back to 2005, no driver has run more laps inside the top 15 at Sonoma than Ambrose, and his average running position of 10.5 is second among all drivers.

He’s also shown the most raw speed in all road course races. In the past five seasons, Ambrose has been the fastest driver on 172 laps on road courses, or a little more than 20 percent of all green-flag laps. No other driver has had more than 66 fastest laps run.