SONOMA, Calif. — Road course racing, NASCAR race cars, the West Coast and wine. What’s not to like?
This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Napa Valley and Sonoma Raceway for the Toyota/Save Mart 350, the first of two road course races in the 2017 season. The 12-turn, elevation-changing, technical road course has proven tough for NASCAR’s best throughout the years, and there’s no reason that’ll change this weekend.
The Indianapolis 500 winner drinks milk after their victory, but at Sonoma, they drink a nice glass of red wine. Don’t worry, folks. I’m not 21 and don’t turn 21 until next weekend. So even if I’m in victory lane at the track this weekend, I won’t be drinking. I’ll save that for the winner.
WHAT: Toyota/Save Mart 350. 218.9 miles (350 kilometers), 110 laps (stages of 25, 25 60 laps)
WHEN: Sunday, June 25, 2017. Green flag scheduled to fly at approximately 3:46 p.m. ET on FS1
WHERE: Sonoma Raceway, 12-turn, -mile road course in Sonoma, California
FAVORITES: Martin Truex Jr. (9-2), Kyle Busch (5-1) and Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch (7-1)
LAST YEAR’S WINNER
Tony Stewart got his only win of 2016 and the final win of his career last season in Wine Country, thanks to a last lap, last corner pass on Denny Hamlin. Hamlin missed the preferred racing line in turn 11, so Stewart drove it in hard, door slammed Hamlin and drove his No. 14 Chevrolet to victory lane for one final time. Hamlin came home second when the checkered flag flew.
Kyle Larson won the Coors Light Pole, his third of the season and fourth of his career after putting down a fast lap of 75.177 seconds (95.295 mph) around the 12-turn road course.
Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and AJ Allmendinger round out the top five qualifiers, with Danica Patrick, Ryan Blaney, Chase Eliott, Chris Buescher and Dale Earnhardt Jr. closing out the top ten starters. Daniel Suarez and Kevin Harvick will roll off 11th and 12th, too.
Some other notables include Clint Bowyer in 13th, Denny Hamlin in 14th, Kurt Busch in 17th, Brad Keselowski in 23rd and Matt Kenseth, who didn’t attempt a lap, in 38th place.
Road courses only made up five percent of the 2016 schedule, and will make up eight percent in 2017 thanks to the addition of the Charlotte Motor Speedway “roval,” but they constantly produce some of the best racing on the circuit. Strategy, tire preservation, fuel conservation and more all factor into a team winding up victors at any track—but especially at Sonoma.
Plus, I always love when NASCAR races on road courses. Why? Because I can tell my friends that they’re making left AND right turns for that weekend! Heck, maybe they’ll actually tune in.
DINGER AND RINGERS
Whenever you say “road course” and “NASCAR,” AJ Allmendinger immediately comes to mind.
The Los Gatos, Calif. native has a road racing background and earned his only Cup win to date at Watkins Glen International, another road course. He has run extremely well at his home track of Sonoma in the past, garnering two top 10 finishes and one pole in his career.
Realistically, this is one of the Dinger’s only chances to qualify for the playoffs. The No. 47 is always fast at road courses and with Allmendinger behind the wheel, a win is realistic.
The same can be said for Michael McDowell. The No. 95 Leavine Family Racing team has been steadily showing an uptick in performance, and McDowell is a road course specialist as well. He earned his first and only NASCAR win to date in the XFINITY Series event last season at Road America racing for Richard Childress Racing in the No. 2 Chevrolet. If McDowell were to grab the checkered flag this weekend, it’d be the first-ever win for LFR in the Cup Series.
Alon Day will also make his MENCS debut this weekend, driving for BK Racing in the No. 23 Toyota. Day will become the first driver from Israel to race in a NASCAR event. He will also become the first Jewish NASCAR driver on record to compete. Obviously, being a Jewish NASCAR fan, this excites me. Alon doesn’t just have a nation pulling for him—he’s got me, too.
There are a couple other road course specialists racing this weekend. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. is out of the No. 43 for one weekend (he’ll return next weekend in Daytona) and Billy Johnson is in. Johnson just completed the famed 24-Hours of Le Mans event driving for Chip Ganassi Racing and Ford Performance. Boris Said will also pilot the No. 33 car this weekend.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Sonoma can be tough on young, inexperienced drivers with a lack of a road course background. Most Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers grew up with a background in either oval or dirt racing—not road courses. Not everybody is like McDowell or Allmendinger in the MENCS.
Second-year driver Ryan Blaney and Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Daniel Suarez will be competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West event, the Carneros 200, from Sonoma. 2014 MENCS champion Kevin Harvick will also be competing in the event alongside the two young rising stars. Harvick’s last full-time season in the NKNPSW was 20 years ago, back in 1997.
Those three drivers will be getting valuable laps on the tricky course, which could possibly prove dividends come Sunday. They will be getting more track time than any of the other drivers competing in the TSM 350, and we know that in anything, practice makes perfect.
POSSIBLE WILD CARD? THINK AGAIN
When fans think of road courses like Sonoma and Watkins Glen, they tend to gravitate to not-so-household names and drivers that can possibly earn their first career victories. This is mostly due to the skillset needed to navigate the lefts and rights with precision, accuracy and speed.
But lately, it’s been anything but the underdogs who have graced the winner’s circle at Sonoma. In fact, out of the last five races at Sonoma Raceway, all the winners have come from the “Power Five” teams. In the last ten, nine have come from those teams with one coming from an honorable mention for Power Five in Chip Ganassi Racing, who swept the front row.
This is likely due to the resources these bigger teams have compared to the Leavine Family Racing’s, Front Row Motorsports’ and Germain Racing’s of the world. These simulators, wind tunnels, world class and top notch engineers, crew chiefs and drivers are better than they’ve ever been. All of those factors have resulted in increased performance on tracks that have historically seen a downtick in performance for big teams. But not anymore.
As usual, I’m sticking to my guns as stated on this week’s episode of Victory Lane and going with Clint Bowyer to emerge victorious from Wine Country with a checkered flag, a trophy and a whole bunch of wine. He won this race back in 2012 while driving for Michael Waltrip Racing in the No. 15 Toyota, and has been a stout road course racer throughout his Cup career.
The NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series will be at Iowa Speedway this weekend for a weekend full of racing from the 7/8-mile oval in Newton, Ia. as well. Ty Majeski will make his NXS debut for Roush Fenway Racing, and Sam Hornish Jr., who won this race one year ago, will race the No. 22 for Team Penske. The NXS race will go green on Saturday night, and the NCWTS race will go green on Friday evening (both on FS1).
I will be at Sonoma this weekend! Be sure to follow along with all my coverage on Twitter and stay tuned with Impact 89FM for all the analysis you could ever need.