The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is taking the weekend off, but the first road course event of 2019 season is waiting after the break. Sonoma Raceway will be the site of next Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350, and in addition to challenging drivers with elevation changes, combination turns and hard braking and shifting zones, Sonoma also puts pressure on crew chiefs to have the right strategy to keep their drivers at the front when it matters most.
The Toyota-Save Mart 350 will be the first of three road course races this season, and while certain drivers excel at the discipline, the pit strategy variable can make things a little tricky for fantasy owners. Yes, you will probably still see many of the same big names finish near the front of the field, but there are a few midrange drivers who enjoy a significant jump in their values.
You may be able to get a Top 5 out of a driver who normally contends for Top 10s, and you might be able to steal a Top 20 or even a Top 15 out of a couple of drivers who hang toward the back of the pack most weeks. These are the drivers you need to target in the Driver Group Game, and in the end, Sonoma could end up being a great opportunity to save starts from some of the bigger names in that contest.
Where the problems could come into play is Fantasy Live. Earning stage points and picking the stage winners is critical in this game’s scoring system, but since you can pit under caution at Sonoma without losing a lap, you will see a lot of the top cars short pit and forfeit stage points in order to best position themselves for the race win.
Even if guys like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick end up finishing at the front, they still aren’t going to be smart plays in Fantasy Live if they don’t also earn stage points along the way. In fact, you are essentially wasting a start from a driver the caliber of Kyle Busch if you roster him and he logs zero stage points. Even if he ends up winning the race, you aren’t going to come close to maximizing his potential without those stage points.
It’s something you have to keep in mind, and it is the main reason why I will be targeting road course studs like Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch in this format Yes, they are still good options with high ceilings, but they aren’t elite options week in and week out like a Kyle Busch or Harvick.
Road courses are different than ovals, and the change can be fun to watch. You just need to make sure you are smart when setting your fantasy lineups for Sonoma.
1. Kyle Busch, #18 M&M’s, Joe Gibbs Racing
Busch has four road course wins under his belt, winning twice at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen. He also has eight finishes of seventh or better in the last nine road races, logging five Top 5s and leading laps in seven of those starts. Busch should be an elite play in season-long and DFS formats.
2. Martin Truex, Jr., #19 Bass Pro Shops, Joe Gibbs Racing
He is a three-time road course winner, and Truex has really been locked in lately. He is the defending winner at Sonoma after leading 62 laps in a dominant performance in 2018, and he has two wins and a runner-up effort in the last four road races alone. Truex has also led laps in six straight road course events, leading 20-plus three times.
3. Kevin Harvick, #4 Jimmy Johns/Busch Beer, Stewart-Haas Racing
Harvick has been the model of consistency at the road courses, logging eight Top 10s in the last 10 races. He has been particularly strong at Sonoma, and after leading 24 laps in a win here in 2017, he led 35 laps and finished in last year’s race. Harvick should be one of the main threats for the win Sunday.
4. Chase Elliott, #9 NAPA Auto Parts, Hendrick Motorsports
He has wasted no time developing into one of the top road course drivers in the series. Elliott has finished 13th or better in six of his seven starts, and he was arguably the best in the business in road races last year. He finished sixth or better in all three road course events in 2018, leading 52 laps in a win at Watkins Glen. I like the idea of using him as a Group A option in the Driver Group Game Sunday.
5. Clint Bowyer, #14 Mobil 1, Stewart-Haas Racing
Bowyer has always been an underrated road course ace, and Sonoma might be his best track in the schedule. He has seven Top 10s in the last eight races here, including six Top 5s. Bowyer has finished second and third in two starts at Sonoma with Stewart-Haas Racing, and I plan to target him at both the DGG and Fantasy Live.
6. Kurt Busch, #1 Monster Energy, Chip Ganassi Racing
It doesn’t matter what car he is driving. Busch knows his way around a road course. He leads all drivers with nine Top 10s in the last 10 road course events, and he has finished 12th or better in eight straight starts at Sonoma. Busch should be one of the safest plays in any format, and this is a great track to target him for the season-long contests.
7. Denny Hamlin, #11 FedEx, Joe Gibbs Racing
Hamlin has always show plenty of speed at the road courses, and he’s been figuring out how to close out races in recent years. He has finished in the Top 15 in all seven road course starts since 2016, picking up four finishes of fourth or better and leading laps in five of those starts.