Some Cup stars face uphill battle

In NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, there’s no such thing as road-course ringers any more.

The reasons are obvious. The top teams already have top drivers that are successful at most every track on the circuit. And a substitute driver isn’t just going to jump into ride with a team and acclimate to the systems and the pit crew in 72 hours.

“I think everybody that’s in the series is pretty competitive now,” Kevin Harvick said.

The California native, who is currently sixth in the points standings, has been rather competitive at Sonoma. But that’s not the case for all of the drivers in the battle for a slot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup or those racers hoping for a wild-card berth.

Who could take a hit in points this weekend on the 1.99-mile road course? Here are five drivers to keep an eye on at Sonoma:

1. Matt Kenseth

Kenseth has a slim four-point lead on Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Cup standings. However, these two drivers could be the most vulnerable this weekend simply because their closest competition is more consistent on road courses. In 12 Sonoma starts, Kenseth’s average starting spot is 20.25. With track position being absolutely critical on a road course, Kenseth hasn’t done himself any favors in qualifying. Perhaps the figure that’s even more striking is that the 2003 Sprint Cup champ has never led a lap at this track. Kenseth posted his first top-15 Sonoma finish in four years when he posted his only top 10 (eighth) at Sonoma last year.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Even after Junior ended his 143-race winless streak last Sunday, he already had Sonoma on his mind. “We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top 10 at that place,” Earnhardt said. Similar to Kenseth, Junior suffers from a weak qualifying effort. His average starting position is 21.083 while his average finish is 22.167. And last year’s mechanical issues with overheating sent him to the garage after 45 circuits. Earnhardt feels a little more confident after testing at Road Atlanta last month. We’ll see if it’s enough to earn that first top-10 finish at Sonoma.

3. Denny Hamlin

In six starts at Sonoma, Hamlin’s results have been hit or miss. Last year Hamlin posted a career best fourth-place starting position, but his result was hampered after contact with another driver broke his left-rear track bar mount and landed the No. 11 Toyota in the garage for repairs. After leading 12 laps in the race, Hamlin ended up 37th – his second consecutive finish on 30th or worse. Hamlin’s also posted two top-10 finishes at the track, including a career-high fifth in 2009. However, when the tour comes to road courses, Hamlin’s isn’t generally one of the names that comes to mind as a contender.

4. Brad Keselowski

Brad Keselowski certainly deserves the award for most improved driver on a road course from his rookie season to 2011. However, one season’s results will not necessarily make a reputation. Still, Keselowski’s cleared the first hurdle – he enjoys racing on road courses. And after crashing out in his first attempt at Sonoma with eight circuits remaining in the event, Keselowski came back last year and finished 10th. The results at Watkins Glen were better as Keselowski wheeled the Blue Deuce to second place behind Marcos Ambrose. Still, it will be curious to see if Super K continues the trend this year or if 2011 was just a fluke.

5. Martin Truex Jr.

Truex Jr. has taken a tumble in points the last couple of months after reaching second in the standings following the race at Kansas Speedway then dropping to seventh two weeks ago after Pocono. Truex needs a miracle this week in order to boost his six-point advantage over Tony Stewart in the standings, but that’s unlikely to happen at a track where he’s led one lap in six starts and posted just one top-10 finish – an eighth place last year. Still, considering Truex crashed out in 2010, any improvement should offer promise for Sunday since his average finish here is 21.7.