NASCAR Sonoma 2013: Toyota/Save Mart 350 viewer's guide

Robert Laberge

A look at what you need to know as NASCAR tackles the road course at Sonoma Raceway.

The Sprint Cup Series takes to a road course for the first time this season, as Sonoma Raceway plays host to today's NASCAR race. Here's a look a look at the storylines and drivers to watch for during the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Storylines

Ambrose and everyone else

Marcos Ambrose is widely regarded as the best road racer in NASCAR and it is a reputation more than justified. But while he has two victories at Watkins Glen he is still winless at Sonoma. The closest he came to winning was three years ago. He was leading late when he stalled his car under caution, handing the win to Jimmie Johnson.

The No. 9 car is fast again this weekend and only a mechanical gremlin in qualifying kept Ambrose from winning the pole for the second straight year. Instead he will start on the outside of the front row and it shouldn't take him much time to assert his superiority. But can he win?

Road Course Ringers

They're called road course ringers and are the hired guns of NASCAR. You will certainly hear a lot about them today but the truth is that a road course ringer hasn't won a road course race in 40 years. The last ringer to go to Victory Lane was Mark Donahue at Riverside Raceway driving a car fielded by Roger Penske.

It's a long shot that the drought will be broken this afternoon. The road course ability among the Cup regulars is as high as ever not to mention the teams the ringers are driving for do not have the best of equipment.

One non-Cup regular to keep an eye on is Jacques Villeneuve. In limited Nationwide Series starts on road courses the former Formula One champion has drawn the ire of many due to his forceful nature. This includes a noteworthy run-in last year with Danica Patrick that saw him intentionally spin her out. It is not an incident Patrick has forgotten nor have those in the garage, many of whom will not be inclined to cut Villeneuve a break.

Road courses are the new short tracks

Road courses have evolved into the new short tracks where feuds are rekindled, settled and started anew all in the course of an afternoon. Adding to the powder keg that is stock car racing on a road course is the tight confines and the limited number of passing zones at Sonoma. And when the checkered flag waves on the Toyota/ Save Mart 350 it's almost a guarantee that there will be frayed nerves, crumpled fenders and plenty of drivers pointing fingers post race.

Worth Noting

An indicator of just how competitive and wide-open Sonoma has become: There have been eight different winners in the last eight years.

Jeff Gordon is the only driver to win at Sonoma in consecutive seasons with three straight victories from 1998-2000.

Favorites

1. Marcos Ambrose

This is an easy call, as the best road course racer is starting second and has been among the fastest in every practice. The only thing that will keep Ambrose out of Victory Lane this afternoon is himself, which has happened here in the past.

2. Kurt Busch

Always formidable on the road courses, Busch has a team behind him this year that should allow him to challenge for the win. The biggest question is whether he and his team can put together a complete race, something which has been problematic for them this season.

3. Clint Bowyer

Although it was considered a surprise when Bowyer won here a year ago, he has quietly been terrific on the road courses. This weekend he has been fast in every session and it would shock no one if he became the second driver in Sonoma to win consecutive races.

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