By Luke Meredith
AP Sports Writer
The NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Sonoma this weekend will be the biggest of the season so far for A.J. Allmendinger.
No one knows that better than Allmendinger.
Allmendinger sits 19th in the standings ahead of the road course race in Northern California. He’s placed in the top 10 just three times in 15 races and, as of now, looks like a longshot to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
But Sonoma represents the best chance for a win and an automatic berth in the Chase yet for Allmendinger, a road-course stalwart whose only career Cup win came at Watkins Glen in 2014.
“You try and go out there and try to have the mindset that it’s just another weekend. But we know it’s not,” Allmendinger said.
The problem is that Allmendinger hasn’t had a ton of success at Sonoma. Allmendinger’s highest finish in seven races there is seventh — and he was 37th in 2014 and 2015 despite starting second and first, respectively.
Still, Allmendinger said he’s looking forward to racing on his home track, a course that favors his driving style.
“We know the biggest races in our sport, the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Southern 500. But for me, Sonoma is on top of the list, because that is a race that I have loved,” Allmendinger said.
If Allmendinger fails to take advantage of this weekend’s opportunity, the race at Watkins Glen in August might be a make-or-break situation for his playoff hopes.
FOREVER SMOKE IN SONOMA
Sonoma Raceway will induct Tony Stewart and Ernie Irvan onto its Wall of Fame this weekend.
Stewart and Irvan will join Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Ricky Rudd and Rick Hendrick as recipients of the honor.
Stewart is one of just five two-time winners at Sonoma, where he’s posted nine top-10 finishes in 17 starts. Irvan also won twice at Sonoma, including a 9.6-second victory over Geoff Bodine in 1994 that remains the largest in Raceway history.
FORD RULES IN FRANCE
Fifty years after its last appearance in the Le Mans 24 Hours race, Ford found itself back atop the podium last weekend in France.
The No. 68 team of Sebastien Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Müller took home top honors in LM GTE Pro category. The No. 69 team, with Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon and Richard Westbrook, was third, leaving Ford just one spot shy of matching its 1-2-3 finish in 1966.
The Nos. 66 and 67 teams came in fourth and ninth in the event.
“It’s a big deal to come back here 50 years after the Ford win in 1966,” said Hand. “We said we wanted to win, but to actually do it is huge.”
The win also made Chip Ganassi the first car owner to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona, 12 hours of Sebring, Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Indianapolis 500 and now Le Mans.
Based on his current form, Camping World Trucks series rookie William Byron looks poised to run away with the championship.
Byron survived a thrilling finish to win last weekend in Iowa, his second straight series victory and third in just nine races heading into this weekend’s event at Gateway Motorsport Park outside of St. Louis.
Byron has never raced at Gateway, but that might not matter. The 18-year-old picked up wins in Kansas and Texas this season in his first trip to those courses.
“We have exceeded what we thought we’d do. But I don’t think we set a goal for a certain number of wins. Based on the last couple of years I didn’t know how long it would take to get that first win. I thought maybe it would take 10 to 15 races,” Byron said.
Byron has made himself more than just the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year after such a surprising start. He’s now just 11 points back of series leader Matt Crafton.
SOUTH FOR DAKOTA
Last week, Sam Hornish Jr. won the NASCAR Xfinity series race in Iowa as a fill-in for Joe Gibbs Racing developmental driver Matt Tifft.
Tifft is out another week with a lower back issue, so Dakoda Armstrong will take his place for an ARCA race at Winchester Speedway in Virginia. It’ll be the first ARCA race in five years for Armstrong, who has eight top-five finishes and two wins in 33 races in that series.