The NASCAR series makes its annual stop in the wine country this weekend (Sunday 3 p.m. ET) for the first road course event of the season. Sears Point Raceway at Sonoma offers the opportunity for drivers to test their road racing skills on the 1.99-mile track. Sears Point contains the largest elevation change and the most significant transitions from high to low speeds on the circuit.
While this is the shortest race of the season in terms of mileage (220 miles), it may put the greatest amount of stress on the mechanical components of the race car. Drivers will typically shift through all the gears on each lap, and will have to keep their brakes cool while trying to position a 3,400-pound car to navigate the tight corners. There is no doubt that several drivers will end up in the dry grassy knolls of Sonoma while trying to just stay on track.
Let’s take a look at some of the contenders as we handicap the race from a wagering perspective.
Martin Truex Jr. (plus 250): In 2017, Truex was outstanding at Sonoma, leading 25 laps before having engine problems that truncated his day with a 37th-place finish. It appears as though Truex has a car that unloaded in great condition and ready to race. Starting in the second spot, Truex is in a prime spot to get the win.
Kevin Harvick (plus 250): Finishing sixth or better in three straight races at Sonoma, Harvick is a well-deserved favorite. Starting in the sixth position on Sunday, last year’s Sonoma race winner has been much stronger in 2018 and appears to be primed to win back-to-back.
Clint Bowyer (4-1): Looking strong in practice is Bowyer, who has the best average finish (10.7) at Sonoma of any active driver. Additionally, he has finished in the top 10 in six of the last seven races at Sonoma. Further, Bowyer is on a short list of drivers who finished in the top 10 in both road course races last season. Starting deeper than anticipated should drive the odds higher as the race draws near.
Kurt Busch (5-1): Busch will attempt to continue his streak of excellent finishes at Sonoma. In his last seven races at Sears Point, Kurt Busch has finished 12th or better. This is a true mark of consistency as many hazards surround the drivers at Sonoma and can lead to poor finishes. Starting 23rd, however, is not ideal and does not support his low odds.
Denny Hamlin (6-1): With finishes in the top 5 in the last two races at Sears Point, Hamlin will be trying to get his second win at Sonoma. Of note, Hamlin has yet to win and there is a strong chance that he would take strategic measures on pit road to capture a victory at Sonoma. What makes his situation different than anyone else? Hamlin is running out of chances to cement his playoff spot. Additionally, this could be a race in which the points leaders try to avoid a disastrous finish. That can lead to a somewhat conservative approach by a few of the season’s best. Hamlin’s odds are currently too low, considering his starting position, to take this bet.
Kyle Busch (7-1): Leading all active drivers with four road-course victories, Busch has been a little slow out of the gates this weekend. He was the 17th fastest in practice performance on Friday. While he may not be displaying the type of speed that we are used to seeing, it’s hard to imagine that he will not be a contender. If he can avoid trouble and have a solid finish, that may suit him just fine. Additionally, as we have seen so often, Ford is the class of the field this weekend. Busch’s Toyota may just not be at the level of the Ford, especially for the Stewart-Haas team. Busch did manage to qualify in the ninth spot, and if the odds were to boost up he could hit value.
A.J. Allmendinger (10-1): Allmendinger is interesting because he is considered to be one of the last road-course ringers. While he runs full time on the circuit, Allmendinger is really a specialist on the road courses and in restrictor-plate races. He has not had the type of finishes at Sears Point that would be expected as he has finished in the top 15 only once in the last four races at Sonoma. The last three races in Northern California have been won by a driver who made four pit stops during the race. This is up from 2-3 pit stops that we had seen for so many years. This increase in stops is especially challenging for Allmendinger as his crew will need to perform to the level of Harvick, Bowyer, and the Busch Bros. to be in contention. The current odds of 10-1 do not expose his realistic value.
Brad Keselowski (15-1): Starting 10th, Keselowski was viewed as a top contender but will have a lot to do if it is to become a reality. While usually these odds provide a lot of value on Keselowski, there is little to back up his chances to win. Additionally, he appears to be sandwiched by a few better cars in Bowyer, Blaney, and Kyle Busch.
Kyle Larson (15-1): After some initial mechanical trouble, Larson rebounded quickly and looked good in Happy Hour running in the top 10. Sears Point gives Larson the avenue to showcase the diversity of his racing talent. Going into the weekend, he was not considered a true contender at Sonoma. However, his ability on any track is generally better than the current listed odds. Factor in that he needs to get his first win and that this is his home track. To round it all out, Larson will be starting from the pole after a great qualifying effort.
Jamie McMurray (20-1): Here is a true dark horse that I would implore the handicapper to find the best odds possible. McMurray has been running progressively better over the last several races and could be a challenger. Running well so far this weekend, McMurray appears to be happier than usual regarding how well they unloaded. In the same manner that Denny Hamlin will be shooting for a win, McMurray is even more driven to get that victory. Without a win, McMurray will be in a major struggle to make the playoff cut. There is little doubt that a strategic maneuver on pit road in terms of timing could be his only path to victory. He is likely to have a top 10 car that he will try and force to the front by any manner.
Ryan Blaney (30-1): The fastest of the Penske cars so far this weekend, Ryan Blaney appears to be more comfortable in his 3rd trip to Sonoma. Finishing in the top 10 of both road course races last year, Blaney has come into form much faster than most of the young drivers on the circuit. While he looks solid, his car is not at the level of the Stewart-Haas cars. However, especially at Sears Point, the fastest car does not always win the
Daniel Suarez (75-1): Undervalued is Suarez as he has posted in top 5 practice times so far this weekend. Suarez clearly has the skills to navigate Sonoma and is in desperate need of a victory to make the playoffs. At the odds listed above Suarez is worth a longshot chance.
To reiterate our approach, the driver matchups are our main handicapping focus as typically these wagers make up 80%-85% of our wagering profile on most races. Many times there are no recommended wagers on race winners unless significant value is offered. Below are the driver matchups that made the wagering cut this weekend.
Jimmie Johnson (even) vs. Kyle Larson (-120): Larson is the selection here as he has progressed well over the weekend. The key to winning this matchup is Larson staying on the track and out of trouble.
AJ Allmendinger (-135) vs. Joey Logano (plus 115): We will take the underdog here as Logano has finished higher than Allmendinger in four straight races at Sonoma. This is further driven by the fact that Allmendinger has started an average of 10 spots higher in each of the losses to Logano.