By Jared Turner
After a rare off-weekend, the drivers of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series head to Sonoma Raceway in Northern California for the first of just two road-course races on the annual series schedule.
Unlike the considerably faster and more forgiving Watkins Glen road course that the Sprint Cup Series will visit in August, the 11-turn Sonoma circuit is a twisty, relatively slow layout that pushes drivers’ patience to the absolute limit.
Oftentimes at Sonoma, especially in recent years, the final laps of the race have bore a striking resemblance to a demolition derby, with cars bouncing off each other and sliding off the track and into tire barriers at an alarming rate.
The rise in aggression can be attributed in large part, of course, to NASCAR’s new win-and-you’re-in way of qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup instituted in 2014. Sonoma presents a rare opportunity for an underdog who excels on road courses but struggles to contend elsewhere, to earn a berth in NASCAR’s playoff.
It happened last season when AJ Allmendinger scored his first career Sprint Cup victory at Watkins Glen, and it could happen again in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Does Allmendinger see Sonoma as a golden opportunity to get to Victory Lane and land a spot in the Chase?
You bet he does.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t come in here with the mindset that we have a shot to win this thing,” Allmendinger said. “But at the same point, the Sprint Cup Series every weekend, it is so tough now. It is a lot different than 10-15 years ago when I thought you looked at the series and said maybe there are five, or eight or 10 guys at most that can win on a road course race. Now it is so deep and everybody has gotten so good at road course racing in general. … We just need to have a solid weekend, and if we can run inside the top 10, good. And, if we can be inside the top five and have a shot to win it, then it’s a great weekend. That is how I look at it.”
Of course, to have a chance to win at Sonoma, one must first be around at the finish. And that can be a tall order, according to two-time Sonoma winner Tony Stewart.
“This is one of those places where most of the time you shake your head when you’re leaving here, going, ‘Thank goodness it’s over,’” said Stewart, who like Allmendinger needs a win to get in the Chase. “The first half of the race is a blast because everybody is being patient and they’re driving like they have sense. The closer to the end of the race, the more that goes away and the more guys just try to take advantage of every situation and every hole that’s available.”
Six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has just one win at Sonoma – which came in 2010 – and considers the super-twisty layout to be one of the toughest he will face all year.
“This track is way different than anything we run on, because of the elevation changes and then how narrow the course is,” said the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy. “Our cars are so big and heavy we need a lot of real estate to slide our vehicles around. It makes a huge challenge, and at the end of the day the tires take all the abuse and that is really the magic around here. One, developing a setup that is easy on the rear tires and then, two, being patient with the car and not running the rear tires off of it. Hopefully, we have that magic.”