Sonoma Presents Opportunity for Winless Drivers

By: Toby Christie – @Toby_Christie

15 races have come and gone in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, and several big-name drivers are still winless. Among the notables: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

On the slate for the winless drivers this week: a 1.99-mile 12-turn Sonoma Raceway road course in the heart of wine country. Road course races have become some of the most unpredictable events over the last few years, and as a result this could be one of the biggest opportunities for one of these drivers to step into victory lane and secure their spot in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick has not been his usual self this season.

Since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, Harvick has a championship under his belt to go along with 12 wins and 23 second-place finishes. So far this season, Harvick blew an opportunity to win in Atlanta, but he hasn’t so much as sniffed victory lane since.

For the first time in three and a half years, Harvick doesn’t seem to be the week-to-week favorite for the win. It seems like frustration and desperation is starting to set in for the driver of the No. 4.

This week Harvick will compete in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma on Saturday in an effort to hone in his road racing skills enough to secure a win in Sunday’s Cup Series event.

Kyle Busch has two wins at Sonoma in his career, but he has blown a ton of chances at victory recently. He narrowly missed a win at Talladega by finishing third. Busch won back-to-back poles at Dover and Pocono, but suffered heart breaking defeats in both races.

At Dover he left pit road without his wheel attached, which sent his day skidding out of control. At Pocono he was outdueled by Ryan Blaney, who went on to his first-career win, while Busch faded to a disappointing ninth-place finish.

This past week at Michigan, Busch held the lead with 15 laps left in the race. Then came a charging Kyle Larson on a restart. Busch would again fade to a seventh place finish.

Have all of these recent frustrations began to weigh on Busch’s confidence to close a race? Only time will tell, but if Busch is in contention for the win heading into the final hairpin turn at Sonoma, expect a Tony Stewart-style body slam for the win.

Speaking of Tony Stewart body slam moves, Busch’s teammate Denny Hamlin was a road course ace all of a sudden a year ago. He narrowly lost to Tony Stewart at Sonoma, and won for the first time at a road course at Watkins Glen.

Hamlin has struggled mightily this season, but he has finished 12th-or-better in seven of the last eight races. Perhaps he can carry his recent momentum to a win at the California road course.

Chase Elliott has still never won a Cup Series race, but he finished second a week ago in Michigan and he looks to be closing back in on that elusive first win. Elliott produced an uninspiring 21st-place finish at Sonoma during his rookie campaign, but he has shown that he can wheel a car at a road course in the past.

Elliott won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West event at Sonoma a year ago, and he also won a Truck Series event at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park a few years ago. If Elliott can figure out how to get the higher horsepowered Cup Series cars around the winding and weaving course he may just get that first win.

Clint Bowyer has won at Sonoma in the past, and he has the second-best career average finish at the track in the series (11.5). Bowyer has arguably never ran for a race team better than his current Stewart-Haas Racing organization. He very well could steal the spotlight in Sunday’s race.

Then there is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has had a long standing publicized hatred for road course racing. Earnhardt once stated that the only good thing about racing at Sonoma was the plane ride out of the track. Earnhardt also said that the track should be blown up with dynamite.

Hatred for the course, or not, Earnhardt has become the most consistent driver at the track over the last three Cup Series events there.

Earnhardt has an average finish of seventh — best in the series over that time — with a best finish of third. Earnhardt has had one of the worst starts to a season in his career, but he is coming off of a top-10 finish at Michigan. Maybe, just maybe Earnhardt can win a race at a road course before he hangs up his helmet at season’s end.

Will one of these drivers bust their slump this weekend? Find out Sunday on FS1 at 3pm ET.

photo credit: Tim Bradbury/Getty Images