Podium Preview: Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

Certainly, Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma promises plentiful action. (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Certainly, Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma promises plentiful action. (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Without delay, Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma returns after a year absence from the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. All in all, this challenging 2.52-mile, 12 turn road course provides plentiful on track action.

In this case, Sonoma races a bit like a short track despite its technical aspects. Surely, track position and long run race strategy might dictate the outcome of this latest Cup race.

Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists preview each NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race. This weekend, Adam LucasAshley Hobbs, Kobe LambethLuis TorresMatt SisolerMichelle RaynorStephen Conley, Taylor KitchenTerra Jones and yours truly ponder about possible future stock car stars and Sonoma’s possible preview of the future.

Podium Preview: Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma
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Question 1
In due time, Ty Gibbs seems destined for NASCAR Cup Series success in the future. (Photo: Stephen Conley/The Podium Finish)

In due time, Ty Gibbs seems destined for NASCAR Cup Series success in the future. (Photo: Stephen Conley/The Podium Finish)

Which driver from the XFINITY, Truck or ARCA Menards Series seems to have the most promise as the next Cup superstar?

Lambeth : Without any hesitation, it is perfectly clear that Ty Gibbs is on his way to becoming NASCAR’s next superstar at the top level. He is absolutely destroying the competition in the ARCA Menards Series and outdueling experienced veterans in the Xfinity Series. For an 18-year-old kid, Gibbs is not driving like a young, inexperienced driver. He looks like someone who has been doing this for many years. Once upon a time ago, there was another 18-year-old named Joey Logano tearing up the competition from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable.

Flashing back to the past, Logano moved up to full-time Cup racing as a teenager and struggled to replace Tony Stewart in the 20 car. Luckily, the move to Team Penske gave him an opportunity for a fresh start and a new environment to thrive. Although everything worked out in the end for Logano, some still argue that he moved up to Cup way too soon.

While Gibbs is clearly working wonders in ARCA and Xfinity, Cup is a different story and moving up the ladder at a rapid pace could be costly later on. On the other hand, Gibbs might be one of those once-in-a-generation talents. Time will tell!

Hobbs : Man, I do not even want to say because verbalizing it adds to the pressure these drivers are under. But, from what has been seen on the track so far this year, I can see Ty Gibbs doing some great things – as long as he gets the time to learn and grow in the lower series before jumping into a Cup ride.

It would also be silly of me to not put a light on Harrison Burton and Josh Berry. I mean, have you seen the noise Berry has been making in the series? These kids can certainly wheel a car. 

But again, the biggest thing is to let them get seat time and prove themselves worthy of moving up through the ranks.

Sisoler : Ty Gibbs has to be the one that I’d say has the best shot right now. A couple of solid wins in his limited action in the JGR No. 54. He needs some more seasoning before making the jump to the Cup Series, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in the main JGR stable in Cup in the next few years.

Torres : It’s extremely tough to say who’ll be the next natural superstar right now. You have candidates like Ty Gibbs, Sam Mayer and maybe Hailie Deegan. It may take years or never with getting that shot of a successful Cup career. That said, out of the three I’ve said, I still think Mayer could be that guy who’ll be the next top tier Cup driver.

Time will tell how he’ll fare at JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. But I still feel he’ll deliver big in his tenure in the No. 8 team. I sure hope so because he’s just that damn good in everything he’s done thus far.

Gibbs is a given with his sudden raw talent in national ARCA and Xfinity races. But I’m not quite ready to give him top billing. Once Jesse Love Jr gets into the national level of NASCAR, then I see him being the next big thing.

Deegan is just struggling in Trucks in a field that has some quality competitors. I’ll wait until 2022 before feeling like she’ll be the “it factor.” She will bring an audience, but it can only go so far.

Tiongson : In my opinion, Corey Heim possesses superstar material. With his ARCA wins at Daytona and Talladega and podium results in all of his other starts, there’s credence with his potential. Moreover, while he crashed late in the Truck race at Darlington, he held a steady wheel all evening long. Whether it’s with Toyota or he makes the manufacturer crossover like Kyle Larson and William Byron, as long as he’s managed carefully up the racing ladder, he can be a true force on the NASCAR circuit.

Question 2
Whenever it's road course time, Martin Truex Jr typically excels. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Whenever it’s road course time, Martin Truex Jr typically excels. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

With Sonoma serving as the third of seven road course races this year, how much of Sunday’s race may serve as a preview of things to come?

Raynor : I am not sure it’s a preview to come but more of the new normal of road course racing. Road Course racing is not going anywhere and the drivers need to get used to running them. The drivers that have dominated like Truex Jr. And Chase Elliot will do well. We will likely see more and more drivers get better at these types of racing as the year goes on. Hopefully for the sport we do see other drivers excel on road courses. 

Jones : I don’t feel it’s necessarily a “preview” as each road course is so vastly different. While I think we can put a blanket over a handful of drivers that will excel, that’s not exactly a preview – that’s more of a repeat of the norm for road courses.

We’ll likely see Chase Elliott and Martin Truex, Jr. dominate, with Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell, the Busch brothers and probably even Kyle Larson making some noise. These tracks fall into the wheelhouse for these drivers. I think as soon as NASCAR announced the additional road courses to the 2021 schedule, most everyone knew what was coming and already had a preview in mind. 

Lucas : I wouldn’t completely agree with it being a preview of things to come. More like a “who will be strong at these types of tracks” kind of deal. Chase Elliott is always comfortable at road courses. But the flow of each road course remaining on the schedule is vastly different from each other.

Obviously, the normal heavy hitters of road racing will be at the front. But the real story will be how well the rest of the field follows along. It seems like short track aces are still the favorites for being consistent at road courses, even if the road course has very long straightaways (ie COTA, Road America, Indianapolis). I’m excited to see how things play out at the remaining four twisty turning tracks!

Kitchen : In terms of viewing this race as a preview of things to come, I am not sure how much Sonoma will tell us that we do not already know. All these road courses are so different, yet we see the same drivers excel each time we return to these tracks.

We know Chase Elliott is the obvious “road course king”, with Martin Truex Jr. close behind. We also know names like Allmendinger (in a Cup car or Xfinity car), Logano, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, McDowell, Bell, even Larson or HMS as a whole succeed at these courses.

These road courses give some drivers a chance to thrive in an environment others may struggle with. This presents a twist in the normal week-to-week routine giving smaller teams a fighting chance. However, I do not expect to see anything that we have not already seen.

Conley : I’m not sure you can take any of the road courses and give a preview of what may come. Outside of the Daytona road course and the ROVAL in Charlotte, none of them are remotely similar. I think the only carryover from one road course to another is that Chase Elliott will be fast!

After two laps around Sonoma, each of us passed the wine valley test quite efficiently. Next, we rewind back a week ago with last Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 race and points reports!
Definitely, Kyle Larson made plenty of panelists happy.

Definitely, Kyle Larson made plenty of panelists happy.

However, Kobe Lambeth continues his Podium Preview dominance.

However, Kobe Lambeth continues his Podium Preview dominance.

Here, Ashley Hobbs crunches the numbers for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma so she can watch Arthur on PBS Kids.
First, consider how your favorite team fares in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma.

First, consider how your favorite team fares in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma.

Since 2004, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma race winner has an average starting spot of 9.8, led an average of 46.6 laps, started within the top five 37.5% of the time and started within the top 10 62.5% of the time.

Since 2004, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma race winner has an average starting spot of 9.8, led an average of 46.6 laps, started within the top five 37.5% of the time and started within the top 10 62.5% of the time.

Notably, Joey Logano seems like the best of the recent Cup champs at Sonoma.

Notably, Joey Logano seems like the best of the recent Cup champs at Sonoma.

Next, consider the trends in the past 10 Toyota/Save Mart 350 races at Sonoma.

Next, consider the trends in the past 10 Toyota/Save Mart 350 races at Sonoma.

Now, let's look at the the trends in the past five Toyota/Save Mart 350 races at Sonoma.

Now, let’s look at the the trends in the past five Toyota/Save Mart 350 races at Sonoma.

For one thing, Joey Logano earned the machine's love as its Sonoma pick.

For one thing, Joey Logano earned the machine’s love as its Sonoma pick.

Lastly, let’s reveal our picks for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma!
As can be seen, these are formidable Toyota/Save Mart 350 contenders.

As can be seen, these are formidable Toyota/Save Mart 350 contenders.

Conley : Holding on to the winner title for the past two years, there is no reason Martin Truex Jr can’t go for 3 straight and prove Hendrick Motorsports can be beat.

Jones : Truex wasn’t able to have much of a say against the “Road Course King” at COTA. He will this weekend though! I expect to see him push his way from the middle of the field to the front in no time at all. And he’ll claim his fourth win of the season, and at Sonoma.

Torres : Safe bet is Martin Truex Jr. Yes, NASCAR hasn’t been at Sonoma since 2019. Yes, it’s a different package this time. I still feel the result will be the same for MTJ. He’ll join Jeff Gordon as a Sonoma three-peat winner and stop Hendrick’s dominance.

Raynor : Martin Truex Jr has owned this track and has always been good here. It’s time he won again.

Tiongson : Somehow, someway, Kyle Larson continues the Hendrick Motorsports party with a Sonoma victory on Sunday!

Kitchen : There are three key drivers you could look at for this. Martin Truex Jr., who won this event in 2013, 2018, and 2019 (not to mention he is also great at road courses). Chase Elliott, who is the road course king, yet shows some weakness at Sonoma. And then there is Kyle Larson, my race winning pick. He is unstoppable when it comes to any track, and after what I saw from him at COTA and even the Daytona Road Course, I think Kyle Larson will be the guy to get it done this weekend.

Lucas : If I’m right, then great. But if something catastrophic happens on Sunday to his car, then I truly believe I am cursed at picking this season. Chase Elliott for the win hopefully. Sorry in advance!

Sisoler : I picked Chase Elliott for one simple reason: He’s Chase Elliott, and they’re going to a road course. His ability on these tracks is only potentially rivaled by Martin Truex Jr and possibly now Kyle Larson. So I think we’ll see the No. 9 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports take the checkered flag at Sonoma.

TPF Stats : The machine magic cannot really explain this one – but it foresees good things happening for Joey Logano this weekend in California.

Hobbs : At some point this year, Kevin Harvick will be victorious, so why not in his home state? Sonoma Raceway has been good to Harvick, and I hope it stays that way.

Lambeth : The last time NASCAR raced at Sonoma in 2019, Matt DiBenedetto enjoyed a strong fourth-place result. He really likes wheeling stock cars at road courses and this track suits his driving style. Do not be surprised to see a big first-time winner celebration this weekend in wine country from Matty D!

Race fans, thanks for joining us for our preview of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma!

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into this race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  Stay safe and wash your hands often. Help yourself, your family and friends by getting the COVID-19 vaccine! Also, thanks for reading our content throughout this season.

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview 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. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization and its staff.

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Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 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 his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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