The Toyota/Save Mart 350 at the Infineon Raceway (3 p.m. Eastern, TNT) is the 16th race of what has been a thrilling and often unpredictable NASCAR Sprint Cup season. That unpredictability continued this weekend as Joey Logano snared the pole for today's event on the 1.99-mile road course nestled in California's wine country.
Jamie McMurray starts second, followed by Paul Menard, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Newman. Defending Infineon winner Jimmie Johnson rolls off 12th. Perennial road course contenders Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart start 13th and 20th, respectively. The entire staring grid can be found at Jayski.com, as can each team's pit stall selection.
Some stories to watch in today's event:
Does Marcos Ambrose get redemption a year later? Ambrose was within sniffing distance of his first Sprint Cup victory in last year's Sonoma event when what could charitably could be called a slight lapse in judgement led him to stall his Toyota and effectively gift-wrap the win to Johnson. The native of Tasmania brought is road racing skills, honed in Australia's V8 Supercar Series, to the U.S. and has recorded three-consecutive wins at Watkins Glen in the Nationwide Series. Until he wins a Sprint Cup race, though, his career in the States will be more known for that one failure than any of his other successes.
Can an invading driver put the Cup stars through the "ringer?" The last time a "road course ringer" beat the full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers to snare a win was 1973, when the late Mark Donohue recorded the lone NASCAR victory in his legendary racing career. Names like Boris Said, Brian Simo, and P.J. Jones highlight the contemporary list of road-racing specialists taking a shot at stealing a win from a Sprint Cup regular. Said, with his curly mop of hair and gregarious demeanor, has become one of racing's more beloved personalities and would be a popular victor.
Can Tony Stewart get back to victory lane? Stewart is winless through the first 15 races of 2011, with just one top-five finish. He has seven wins on road courses, however, including two at Sonoma (2001, 2005). That 2005 victory jump-started his run to his second Sprint Cup title, as he followed that up that triumph by winning four of the next six races.
Will there be fireworks? Drivers traditionally, to be frank, lose their mind at the end of an event at Sonoma, leading to numorous late-race spins. There have been plenty of fireworks already in 2011, and it would only be fitting if drivers trade paint, words, and even blows at the end of the day.
Does strategy come into play? Unlike oval races, the worst thing that can happen to a driver today - aside from ending up stuffed into a tire barrier or stricken without fuel or power - is being on track when the caution flag comes out. The track's size means that most drivers will not lose a lap while making a green-flag stop, which could take a driver who was near the rear of the field to the front and vice versa if their stop is timed just right.