Track Talk: Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish provide their thoughts on the latest stories in the world of NASCAR. Additionally, we attempt to pick the winner of the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

This weekend, our panel consisting of Adam LucasAshley HobbsAshley Hull, Christina Bowman, Cody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKatie CoppleKayla SturmKyle Magda, and Stephen Conley reflect on Kyle Larson’s victory at Michigan, the rage on debris cautions, Billy Johnson’s Cup debut at Sonoma, and who may take over the No. 88 Chevy in 2018!

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Question 1
Larson reigned supreme at Michigan. Can he do the same by season's end?

Larson reigned supreme at Michigan. Can he do the same by season’s end?

Kyle Larson scored his second win of the season by taking the checkered flag at Michigan on Sunday.  Does this serve as a reminder that the No. 42 team came out ready to fully contend for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title?

Conley :  I don’t think they needed a reminder. The field has seen Larson and the No. 42 Target Chevy at the front of the field more than they have at any point of his career. He’s led more laps this season than all of his prior years in the Cup series.

Hobbs :  Absolutely it does! Larson has been the best driver this season. In 15 races, he has 2 wins, 3 stage wins, 7 top 5s and 10 top 10s. to cap it off, he has the best average finish of the field at 7.93; second to him is Martin Truex Jr, who also has 2 wins and coasts a whopping 10 stage wins. Those who ever doubted Kyle Larson should be laughing at their self now. Larson has always been the real deal and he is really showing it this season.

Magda :  They’ve been one of the top teams all year. Somehow Larson and his Chip Ganassi Racing guys find a way back to Victory Lane. The 42 bunch and the No. 78 team have been the best consistently throughout 2017.

This past Sunday showed the same with Larson and Truex mixing it up towards the front. Those two guys always find to seem each other on the track. Sonoma is going to be a toss-up as it’s a road course and those who run well at those type of facilities will contend for the win this week.

Sturm :  Absolutely. It would not be wise to count Kyle Larson out as a championship contender. In fact, I very well think he could be the champion. I don’t know what it is, but Larson and the No. 42 team are absolutely smashing it this year.

Larson is one of the most talented drivers out on the track at the moment and it seems as if he just keeps improving. He’s been leading the points for the majority of the season and I don’t doubt that he will continue to lead and continue to amass more wins. Keep your eye on him because he’s in it to win it.

Hull :  This definitely shows that Kyle Larson is one of the drivers to beat this year. He is coming off the best season of his career, and now has two victories. I don’t expect him to slow down either. He will easily be one of the final drivers vying for the championship at Homestead. Larson is a talented driver with a talented team and crew chief. They are one of the best this year.

Lucas :  Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR) as a whole, showed up to Daytona with immense speed (and near suicidal drafting tactics by Jamie McMurray) and better built cars. The offseason was very fruitful for the two car operation, in addition to bringing on board a few former Stewart Haas Racing (now a Ford team, formerly a Chevy operation) members have definitely showed so far in 2017.

Kyle Larson is in fact the next superstar of the sport, and I hope that he carefully thinks out his future beyond this season. Remember the CGR team of 2010? While successful that season, they followed up with a subpar 2011 and a frustrating 2012 campaign.

If the team can continue to learn and develop their equipment for 2018, I think that CGR and Larson will be a threat year in and out. Otherwise, it could lead to bloated expectations for 2018, followed by a bad season, and an eventual move for Larson. It’s almost halfway through the season, so I hope that they can continue to build for the future.

Copple :  Since his rookie season, analysts have pegged Kyle Larson as the next Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch when it comes to racking up multiple wins in a season. He has never lived up to that prodigy until now. Larson and the No. 42 team have run an impressive race so far this season. No doubt, they will be a real contender when the playoffs rolls around. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the top-eight and maybe even the final four.

Cassidy :  With a strong finish to the season last year, perhaps fans expected nothing less from the No. 42 team this year. I am excited to see how Kyle Larson’s championship run plays out.

Bowman :  Who didn’t think Larson had a shot before this weekend?! He leads the Cup point standings, has two wins, 10 top tens (seven of those being top-fives), an average finish of a little better than eighth and we are only 15 races in! Larson seems to have his head in a good place and his performances speak for themselves. If he can keep up the consistency, there’s no doubt he is a top contender.

Shoppe :  I think by now Kyle Larson has proven that he and his No. 42 CGR team are the real deal this season! I see them getting many more wins this season and as of this moment they are the favorite for the title in my mind. No other team has been this consistent and fast like Larson to this point, I see it being a toss up between Larson and Martin Truex Jr for most wins in the regular season.   

Question 2
Want some wine with that debris?

Want some wine with that debris?

Debris cautions drew the ire of fans and competitors on Sunday at Michigan. Dale Earnhardt Jr said on his post-race Periscope session that he doesn’t “know why they’ve got to throw so many damn debris yellows.” Are some of these yellows unnecessary or warranted, whether it’s shown on TV or visible on the track?

Conley :  It’s called a caution for a reason. There are times when a spotter sees something on the track that truly warrants a debris caution​. However, in the time spent with communication and verification, a car may hit that debris or miss it.

Just because we don’t see it on TV doesn’t mean it was not warranted. The moment we hesitate and someone hits something, gets a garbage bag stuck on a grill or even goes through it, that creates a bigger issue then we’ve got drivers and owners upset because of a wrecked car. They were upset this time because cars got wrecked by aggressive driving on a restart. There is a way to cure that and the drivers are the key there.

Hobbs :  There should never be a caution unless a caution is necessary. If the TV crews cannot locate the debris and NASCAR does not tell them where it is, it just fuels the speculation that NASCAR is trying to “fix” something.

There’s two guaranteed cautions with the stages so why throw in more? NASCAR also needs to determine what gets a debris caution and what does not.

Does a bag blowing around really deserve one? Does a piece of metal out of the racing groove deserve one? Whatever it is, they need to be consistent, something NASCAR has struggled with doing in the past (and present).

Magda :  I know I’m not the only one but when a debris caution is thrown. In the meantime, I expect there to be visual evidence on the location of the debris. This question’s also a double-edged sword because it can end up as a “he said, she said” question.

I’m confident in the sport’s officiating system but not always going to get every single call. I will say there’s been a major improvement with NASCAR throwing the phantom debris cautions. What I do think is important is letting a race play out naturally and not let assumptions dictate the outcome of a race.

Sturm :  Here’s my opinion on debris yellows: I get it. I get why they’re thrown if there is visible debris on the track. NASCAR is trying to keep drivers safe because something as simple as a trash bag could absolutely be detrimental if it gets in the right place at the right time, such as a NASCAR windshield.

Do I believe sometimes debris cautions are thrown to “rig” the race? That I can’t really say. I don’t want to believe it’s true, but NASCAR didn’t show the debris that caused the last “debris caution” at Michigan, which does raise some eyebrows and some questions because normally they do.

But that’s beside the point. You can never be too safe in one of the most dangerous sports out there so I can understand the debris cautions for every little thing.

Hull :  That depends. If the debris is clearly a hindrance to the drivers, then it is good to throw out the yellow. But I think that the “mystery debris” cautions are ridiculous. They have cost a lot of drivers a shot at winning the race or even the championship. So I agree with Dale Earnhardt Jr in that they throw way too many cautions.

Lucas :  They are warranted. There’s no debate that the final caution on Sunday was questionable at best. But here’s the thing. As a driver, would you want to hit a “possible” piece of debris that could ruin your day, and/or fly into the grandstand or infield, injuring team members or spectators?

David Hoots and his team are not idiots, or grand masters of manipulation. They must meet a certain code of conduct that includes keeping all drivers, teams, and spectators safe during an event. You must always err on the side of caution. Safety is the number one priority during a race weekend.

This shouldn’t even be up for debate! Fans and drivers can cry wolf all they want, but what if the boot was on their foot? Would you want a preventable accident or tragedy on your hands?

Copple :  I’m torn on this one. If it’s a hard piece of metal on the track or a piece off of a race car then yes, I believe a caution at any point in the race is necessary. But if it’s a water bottle or piece of paper that won’t do much of any damage to the cars with just a handful of laps to go, then what’s the point? Let them race it out! If someone catches that paper on their nose, then that just adds a new level of excitement to the end of the race.

Cassidy :  Racing in such open environments means debris on track no matter what track the circuit travels to. Knowing this, I think NASCAR needs to be cautious as they are very inconsistent with these yellow flags. Ultimately, this is why fans and drivers get upset as the idea of favouritism enters.

Bowman :  You can play devil’s advocate with this question all day long. Even with all of the spotters, officials, and cameras at each track, NASCAR will never get this “right” 100% of the time in the eyes of fans and/or drivers.

They are going to be criticized regardless. If they cannot say with certainty that there is no risk, then they have an obligation to wave the yellow simply for safety reasons.

On the other hand, I feel for the teams and drivers because there is no guarantee of accuracy. It’s a judgment call and with that comes room for error. There’s just no winning here.

Shoppe :  I understand NASCAR’s job of safety playing a role in throwing debris cautions regardless of having a positive identification of what exactly the debris is. Sometimes, it might be something harmless but it is better to be on the safe side.

At the end of a race like last weekend at Michigan, the caution changed the complexion of the race greatly. I think NASCAR needs to look into finding better ways of searching the track for debris and identifying it as a hazard or not before changing outcomes like they have many times.

Question 3
That's right, Jimmie. Another Johnson races at Sonoma!

That’s right, Jimmie. Another Johnson races at Sonoma!

Billy Johnson will make his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut when he clambers into the No. 43 Ford at Sonoma.  What can we expect from this road course specialist in one of the most recognizable rides of the sport?

Conley :  Good thing I don’t own the team. I’d have left Bubba Wallace in the car. Without question, Billy Johnson is one of the best road racers around. However the guys he will be racing are pretty good too, and they know the cars a heck of a lot better. I don’t expect the result to be any better than they would have been with Wallace in the car.

Hobbs :  It feels like it has been a while since a “road course specialist” was in the car. However, if we want young drivers to learn, how can they learn if they are not in the car? If the goal is to get Bubba Wallace Cup experience, why not get him some at Sonoma by being in the car?

As for Billy Johnson, I do not know about him or his racing career. But, as a road course specialist, I think he will stand with the rest of the drivers. These drivers have worked for years to get better at road course racing. I think they have proven they can race with the specialists and beat them.

Magda :  I think the term “road-ringer” has been dead since 2005. There hasn’t been any outsider who has a chance of pulling off the upset.

The days of Ron Fellows, Boris Said, and Scott Pruett are done. They were in competitive rides for a few years in the early-to-mid 2000s. Since then, we’ve heard no noise from them.

Billy Johnson is a premier road-racer, spent many years in the Continental Tire Sportscar Series under the Roush banner. He caught many by surprise when he was fastest in practice at Road America for Carl Edwards in 2011, who was impressed by his speed and ended up skipping the race just to focus on his Cup efforts in Sonoma.

RPM has proven to be strong on road courses especially when Marcos Ambrose was behind the wheel of one of their cars. I can see Billy Johnson getting a top-15 or top-20 finish at best as the No. 43 car is not a bad ride.

Sturm :  I don’t have much to say on this particular topic because I’m not all that familiar with Billy Johnson. I do know that he’s a master at road courses and that he was a very serious contender when running road courses with Roush for the Xfinity Series. In this case, I’m going to guess that he’ll be a good fit at Sonoma and be a strong contender in the Cup Series as well. I guess we shall see on Sunday.

Hull :  I don’t know much about Billy Johnson except he is a great road course ringer. I think that he bring a respectable finish this weekend. I think it would be a great opportunity for him as well, seeing that he hasn’t had a chance in NASCAR much yet. We shall see on Sunday how he fares at Sonoma.

Lucas :  Not much. The No. 43 has been off all year and likely will not get much of a boost from the ringer. I hope I’m wrong though. Billy Johnson is one of the best road racers in the world by far, and I wish him well this weekend.

I remember watching him race at Road America for Roush in 2013, putting on a brilliant show after a pit road speeding penalty. As a matter of fact, he was charging all the way back to the lead. It ended with a late race crash during usual chaotic late race restart at the circuit. The performance of the No. 43 team has been “meh” at best since losing Almirola.

Copple :  Is anyone surprised that a road course veteran is on this race? There is usually one in every road course race in the season so this doesn’t surprise me. He may be a road course expert but it’s his first time in a Cup car and racing with the top guys in the series. He’s either going to contend for the win or fall to the back. It’ll be all or nothing.

Cassidy :  I am interested to see how this plays out. It is clear that Billy Johnson has talent on road courses but to jump right into a Cup car is a tricky task.

Bowman :  Billy Johnson had decent finishes in his Xfinity Series starts. I think it’s safe to say that he will do well this weekend at Sonoma. The biggest gain might just be to RPM itself. Getting data and feedback from someone so adept at road course racing will only improve their program.

Shoppe :  Billy Johnson is a great road course racer who had some impressive runs in Roush equipment in the past at the Xfinity level.  This is a great opportunity for him to show what he can do in this one race and I do expect a solid run for him and the No. 43 team.

This is the right choice for RPM in my opinion since Bubba Wallace doesn’t have the road course experience to give them the run they need. I am excited to see an increase of ringers this year compared to years past, with the No. 43 and Billy Johnson, the No. 33 with Boris Said, Alon Day in the No. 23, Josh Bilicki in the No. 51, the No. 15 with Kevin O’Connell, and the No. 55 with Tommy Regan.

Question 4
Following Dale Earnhardt Jr's retirement by season's end, who'll take over the famed No. 88 Chevy?

Following Dale Earnhardt Jr’s retirement by season’s end, who’ll take over the famed No. 88 Chevy?

It seems like the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy ride has become a prized commodity for any free agents heading into next season.  Might we see a shocking move occur in terms of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s successor for that ride or will they chose their new driver based on their talents within the organization?

Conley :  I have to believe that we will see sponsor announcements before we have details on the driver that will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ultimately, that will be the deciding factor. I’m sure plenty of drivers want the ride. However, in today’s NASCAR, it’s about who has the backing. I would be surprised if it’s someone outside of the organization right now.

Hobbs :  I think Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have a lot of say into who replaces him. That said, I think Alex Bowman is the clear favorite given that Earnhardt is all for it. I would be shocked if something else comes out of this.

Magda :  Don’t expect a shocking move for the No. 88 car. All signs are pointing to driver-in-waiting Alex Bowman to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. I think his Phoenix performance last fall basically sealed the deal for him to get the ride and after being let go by Tommy Baldwin Racing the year before.

It’s hard for me to believe Brad Keselowski would leave Team Penske with all the success he’s had over there since the same Hendrick team kicked him to the curb in 2009. As far as the No. 5 team goes, there’s a lot of uncertainty on that side as well but I expect Bowman to the 88 will happen.

Sturm :  I thought I was pretty confident on my prediction of who would go into the 88 (Alex Bowman) up until the Jayski article came out on ESPN stating that Hendrick “needs to scour the market for available drivers.” The article then mentioned that that could be Matt Kenseth.

So at this point, I can honestly say I have absolutely no clue who is going to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. I think it’s all pretty much up in the air for everyone to take guesses at right now. I personally was hoping for Bowman, but who knows? One thing I can say is that after this season, NASCAR is going to have a huge shake-up as far as who’s driving for who.

Hull :  I still believe that William Byron is a shoo-in for the No. 88 ride. Even though this is just his first year in the Xfinity Series, he is doing really good, and has the best talent out of all the candidate for the ride. We will see soon who takes the ride, but I think that William Byron is still the one who will get it. And he will be a great addition to Hendrick Motorsports.

Lucas :  It would be an absolute tragedy if Alex Bowman was not driving the No. 88 in 2018. He proved his worth in 2016 as a substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr even if the results didn’t quite show it.

Bowman is very likable with the current fan base and fits the Hendrick mold of not being to braggadocios or full of himself, sort of like a young Jimmie Johnson. Maybe a rebrand of the No. 88 back to the No. 25? I’d be in favor of that. The 2017 silly season is in full effect, don’t believe everything you read on social media or the internet.

Copple :  Silly season is getting in to full swing and the No. 88 will be the ride most closely watched. I really don’t know who Mr. Hendrick is going to put into the seat. He really could go either way with a veteran driver or a rookie.

I could see Matt Kenneth in that ride or we could all be surprised and see Carl Edwards out of retirement. This is going to be one of the most coveted seats in the field. Drivers who are eligible for it will be clamoring for that open seat.

Looking at Hedrick Motorsports as a whole, Jimmie Johnson is their veteran driver and Chase Elliott is running a pretty good race for still being a new driver to the series.

On the other hand, Kasey Kahne hasn’t been pulling his weight in recent seasons. His time in the No. 5 could be coming to an end as well which would leave yet another open seat in one of the best organizations in the sport.

It’s going to be a fun silly season for sure.

Cassidy :  Bowman deserves a shot in the 88. End of story.

Bowman :  That No. 88 car is a coveted ride, not only for the legacy of its soon to be former driver, but for the pure talent, technology and consistency that the Hendrick organization is known to provide its drivers.

Brad Keselowski still has not signed a contract extension with Team Penske. While he is an option to take over the 88, I don’t see him signing with anyone other than Roger Penske.

If Hendrick was looking for another young driver to cultivate, Erik Jones or William Byron would be an interesting picks. The biggest shock, in my opinion, would be if Carl Edwards came out of his ‘non-retirement’ and jumped into the seat!

I don’t expect that we will hear any news until at least the playoffs start or maybe not even until the end of the season. I think that everyone involved really wants to give Dale Jr, his fans and colleagues a final season that everyone can be proud of. Focusing on who is coming in to fill his shoes might take away from that.

Shoppe :  This is a highly coveted ride that will be hotly contested by many drivers. Matt Kenseth has been in the rumors a lot lately as a possibility. The Carl Edwards theory has stuck around still.

Ultimately, there is Alex Bowman. I would pick Bowman if I had a say. The Phoenix, AZ native has proven himself in that ride and has a connection with that crew. Although he isn’t as proven as Matt Kenseth, he has age on his side. I feel like with all the names thrown in the ring for the No. 88 car, perhaps Bowman’s best shot is if the No. 5 car becomes available.

Solid four laps around this fast road course nestled in the Sonoma, CA!  Before we put some ice on our glass of wine, let’s review how we all fared in the Irish Hills of Michigan last Sunday!

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...thus tightening up the points race coming into Sonoma!

…thus tightening up the points race coming into Sonoma!

Every day may be a winding road.  So let’s get a little bit closer by revealing our picks to win Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway!
Might one of these fantastic five feel very fine at Sonoma?

Might one of these fantastic five feel very fine at Sonoma?

Tiongson :  OK, so the word progress may be a comfortable way to describe this driver’s season to date. It’s been a struggle in 2017 but look for AJ Allmendinger to nab his second career Cup win at Sonoma!

Cassidy :  The winner on Sunday will be AJ Allmendinger.

Bowman :  Ugh! I’m split between two drivers, but I choose AJ Allmendinger!!

Lucas :  I have debated myself all week about who to pick. The current lot of drivers in the sport are better road course racers than ten years ago, which makes this even more difficult to choose just one driver. After much deliberation, and feeling like I probably will only pick him one more time this season, I am picking AJ Allmendinger for Sonoma. Think outside the oval!

Shoppe :  My pick is AJ Allmendinger!

Conley :  It’s going to be a big party in Wine Country as Clint Bowyer will “toast” the field.

TPF Stats :  He has quietly been earning points this season and with a new ride, Clint Bowyer will look to capitalize in Wine Country.

Magda :  My race pick for Sonoma is Clint Bowyer.

Hobbs :  Road courses always bring a different level to the table. That said, I like Kurt Busch‘s history at Sonoma.

Sturm :  Sonoma is another one of those tracks, like Michigan, where there isn’t really a consistent winner. However, my gut is really telling me Jimmie Johnson so I’m going to have to go with him!

Hull :  I believe that Kyle Busch will finally get his first win of the season here at Sonoma.

Copple :  My race pick will be Kyle Busch.

That wraps it up, race fans!  Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts each week! The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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