By Jared Turner
Following a rare off-week, it’s back to business this weekend for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers as they head west to Northern California for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
The twisty 10-turn track is the first of two road courses on the Sprint Cup schedule, and is a place where just about anything can happen.
The past seven races here have produced seven different winners – a far cry from the old days when only a handful of drivers seemed to have a legitimate shot of going to Victory Lane in the Wine Country.
“When I started, I think there were probably two legitimate contenders to win road-course races,” said Tony Stewart, who is a three-time Sprint Cup Series champion and two-time Sonoma winner. “Now you can look at it and say there are 15 or 16 guys who could put together a good day, if they don’t get wrecked, and have a shot at winning. It is much like Martinsville. Sonoma becomes a demolition derby at the end.
“If you can get a long run to get to the end of it, it makes it nice. If you get a restart with 10 laps or less, it is an absolute demolition derby. There are a lot of places two cars don’t fit very well, side-by-side, and somebody always gets the short end of the stick.”
Stewart certainly knows his way to Victory Lane at Sonoma, having conquered the tricky road course in 2001 and 2005.
So what’s the key to success at the 1.99-mile circuit?
“It’s just a challenging racetrack,” Stewart said. “It’s a track where you just have to get into a rhythm. A lap around there, you just don’t get much time to relax. So when you get in the race, you have to be spot on the whole time.”
Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, recorded his lone Sonoma triumph in 2011 while driving for Roger Penske’s organization. Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion, calls the Sonoma race “a rhythmic balance that you get into.”
“You work all the corners you try to tie them altogether to create your lap time,” Busch said. “Road courses are unique on how you get into that rhythm, and you don’t even realize that you are halfway through the race before you really even get settled in. Road courses are challenging in so many different ways.”
And the challenges go beyond the actual racing that takes place on the track.
“Mostly it’s about strategy … when to pit,” said Ryan Newman, a driver who has never been to Victory Lane at a road course. “The fuel strategy depending on how you qualify and depending on if you have any damage. Do you need to work on the car? Do you need to pull a fender off a tire? Things like that can change your strategy. A lot of your strategy depends on where you qualify and then how your race unfolds.”
Martin Truex Jr., who won at Sonoma in 2013 while driving for the now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing, loves racing in the Wine Country, but acknowledges the difficulties just the same.
“I like the track, it’s fun, but it can get crazy there,” said Truex, now in his third season with Furniture Row Racing. “It’s a place where you definitely need to be out front towards the end of the race. That’s what you work for all day — to put yourself in position strategy-wise and fuel-mileage wise. When those cautions at the end start coming out, if you’re not in the front two rows, the chances are you’re going to get hit and knocked off the track. The chances go up with every row you move back from the first two.”