New generation car makes its road-course test at Sonoma

jutter@charlotteobserver.comJune 20, 2013 

Twenty-five years of NASCAR-style road course racing at Sonoma Raceway in the California wine country has included a lot of changes and memorable moments.

The first Sprint Cup Series race on June 11, 1989, set the tone for the aggressive driving that has become a Sonoma trademark.

Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd traded paint in the closing laps and Rudd held off Wallace by .05 seconds, still the closest margin of victory in the track’s NASCAR history.

This weekend could produce similar memories.

The Cup series’ new generation car has made its debut on every type of track used in NASCAR but one - road-course racing, which comes in Sunday’s Save Mart/Toyota 350 at Sonoma.

The new car, which features much greater brand identity, is 160 pounds lighter than last year’s model. The car has more downforce, which results in better tire grip, and that can allow drivers can attack corners with more confidence and more speed.

The new car was designed with hopes of improving the quality of racing, particularly at 1.5-mile ovals. It has produced surprises just about everywhere it has been used.

“I think it’s safe to say it’s going to be faster. I don’t know that that means we are going to have more passing or less passing or what the exact situation is going to be,” said driver Ryan Newman.

“Faster usually leads to more braking, and more braking usually leads to more heat, and I think it’s definitely going to be a situation where you want to have track position – no different than it ever has been at Sonoma.”

Road course racing has become much more of an aggressive affair ever since NASCAR implemented double-file restarts in 2009.

“When I first started there, there was road racing etiquette. You’d only pass entering Turn 11, and maybe there was one other passing zone,” said veteran Matt Kenseth.

“Now it’s kind of a free-for-all. It seems all that etiquette’s gone. If there’s an inch of pavement and maybe some dirt, someone is going to take it.”

Clint Bowyer, who won this race a year ago, calls road course racing now “an emotional roller coaster.”

“Sonoma is just one of my favorite tracks, and I can’t believe I’m telling you that because it’s a road course and I’m a dirt tracker from Kansas,” he said.

“There’s so much emotion that goes into a road course because, obviously, you have to have speed and you got to keep your car in position. But you (also) got to stay on the race track.”

The annual road course race at Sonoma is noteworthy for the big-name drivers who struggled for years on the twisting layout before finally claiming the checkered flag.

It took the late Dale Earnhardt until 1995 to win at Sonoma for his only road-course victory. That came 21 years into his 27-year Cup career.

Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson struggled early in his career at Sonoma. It took him until his ninth start at the track, in 2010, before he finally won.

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon has been the most frequent visitor to Sonoma’s Victory Lane – winning in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004 and 2006.

Gordon isn’t certain Sunday’s race will look much different than races in recent years.

“We tested a road course (recently) and I didn’t think there was a significant change. It felt good. It stuck good. The lap times were good,” he said.

“So, I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of big changes there. We should still see a pretty wild and intense and crazy race on those road courses.”

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