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The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns Sunday after a brief hiatus to pit Clint Bowyer and the rest against the tricky Sonoma Raceway for the Toyota / Save Mart 350.
Bowyer secured his second checkered flag of the season before the break, becoming the fourth multi-race winner of the season alongside elite names like Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.
Parity hasn’t exactly been the name of the game this year though, not with Busch and Harvick sharing a combined nine checkered flags so far—and Sunday’s event saw Harvick take it down a year ago.
Which isn’t to say the event won’t be competitive. New faces have started to show new life lately, suggesting the series is approaching a tipping point where some new names will get to Victory Lane. Knowing how random this event can be at times, Sunday is a welcome return to the track for fans.
Where: Sonoma Raceway
When: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET
Watch: Fox Sports 1
Live Stream: Fox Sports GO
Toyota / Save Mart 350
1. Kurt Busch (41)
2. Brad Keselowski (2)
3. Kyle Busch (18)
4. Kevin Harvick (4)
5. Joey Logano (22)
6. Aric Almirola (10)
7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (17)
8. Erik Jones (20)
9. Ryan Blaney (12)
10. Denny Hamlin (11)
Note: Qualifying is Saturday.
2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Standings
|1. Kevin Harvick||589|
|2. Kyle Busch||664|
|3. Clint Bowyer||510|
|4. Martin Truex Jr.||506|
|5. Joey Logano||566|
|6. Austin Dillon||292|
|7. Brad Keselowski||514|
|8. Kurt Busch||493|
|9. Denny Hamlin||468|
|10. Ryan Blaney||457|
|11. Kyle Larson||443|
|12. Aric Almirola||433|
|13. Jimmie Johnson||377|
|14. Chase Elliott||362|
|15. Erik Jones||346|
|16. Alex Bowman||331|
Drivers to Watch
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Bowyer might just have the juice to make it two in a row and three on the season.
It was hard to tell back in March if Bowyer’s win at Martinsville was the start of something bigger or a small blip. And he indeed hit on a bit of a downswing, finishing outside of the top 10 at four events in a row recently—before breaking the streak with the win at Michigan.
The up-and-down ride so far leaves the Stewart-Haas Racing driver at a critical juncture of his campaign. And given his record at Sonoma, he’s heading into the weekend plenty confident:
Jeff Gluck @jeff_gluck
So Clint Bowyer has the best average finish at Sonoma of all active drivers. And guess what? He is P1 in practice so far with AJ Allmendinger in P2.
Also sure to give a driver some confidence? Fending off a guy like Harvick in the last race before a rain delay.
Sunday is the sort of event a driver like Bowyer needs so he can keep the momentum long into the summer. He’s won this event as recently as 2012 and three wins on the season would inch him closer to the heavyweights on the leaderboard and solidify his serious threat to a deep playoff push.
Derik Hamilton/Associated Press
Harvick almost had a ridiculous sixth win on the season before finishing just behind Bowyer at Michigan.
Ask the man himself, he was just happy the small hiccup happened at the hands of a teammate.
“But he did a good job hanging onto his car, and the gamble paid off for him,” Harvick said, according to NASCAR.com’s Reid Spencer. “Look, I’ve been on both sides of this. If you’re going to have racing luck work against you, you want to at least stay on your own team.”
Harvick isn’t going to lose a ton of sleep about missing out on his sixth win of the season, though he is going to try and shift the momentum into a second consecutive win at this particular event. A year ago, he started 12th and only led 24 laps before winning his first race of the season.
Suffice it to say this year has unfolded quite a bit differently. Harvick is the juggernaut atop the standings in the win column with only three non-top-10 finishes on the season outright. A top-10 performance is a given, though where will come down to how aggressive he gets and how luck decides to smile on his crew.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Eyes now turn to Kurt Busch when it comes to negative press a driver needs to shake.
Busch just whiffed on his 50th consecutive race without a win, which has an even bigger light shined on it right now because his team has won seven of the 15 races so far this year thanks to the Bowyer-Harvick tandem.
Also not helping things for Busch is his performance at Michigan, where he looked like the clear-cut winner for the majority of the early goings before falling off. He came away with a top-three finish, but had started first and led 46 laps.
Now he’s hoping to put it all together at a track he likes.
“We haven’t won yet, but we’ve been a good contender each week,” Busch said, according to the Press Democrat‘s Peter Fournier. “It’s just a matter of finding that right combo with pit strategy, having solid pit stops, and then I have to do my job to gain spots on restarts. We just haven’t had that perfect race to pull off the win yet, but I know it’s right around the corner when you have all the speed in the car.”
Busch’s long history at Sonoma isn’t as popular as some, but he’s right there with the big names:
Stewart-Haas Racing @StewartHaasRcng
DYK: @KurtBusch and @ClintBowyer are tied for the most top-5 finishes of all active #NASCAR Cup Series drivers at @RaceSonoma. They have both finished fifth or higher seven times during their career. We like those odds for Sunday, don’t you?
Busch certainly has enough talent to take the momentum gained last week off a season-best finish and compete for another trip to Victory Lane.
While it’d be business as usual for Stewart-Haas Racing, for Busch it would be finally clearing a hurdle while entering the postseason discussion in one swift leap.