Sonoma: Get Ready To Throw A Few Rights
Turning right in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition generally gets a competitor a date with a Safer Barrier. But not this week, when the series visits 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway in California for the 2013 season’s first road course event.
Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. EDT on TNT, Performance Racing Network Radio and SiriusXM Satellite Radio) marks the 25th time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has appeared at the track located just north of San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate.
NASCAR Sprint Cup teams go “off the oval” just twice a year – Watkins Glen International hosts its event in August – but both events have become must-see affairs thanks to two-abreast restarts on narrow, undulating track surfaces producing plenty of fender-on-door competition.
The storylines for Sunday’s race are many – and don’t always mirror those of a normal NASCAR Sprint Cup weekend.
· Sunday’s race will be the first for NASCAR’s Gen-6 car.
Richard Petty Motorsports’ two drivers, Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola, participated in a May test at Sonoma. The team has a single victory at the track with Kasey Kahne in 2009.
“We’re happy with the progress, but we would love to be faster always,” said Ambrose, the series’ most consistent road racer over the past five years with seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes – but still seeking his first Sonoma victory. “We’re confident that we’ve learned a lot and we’ll come back with a better package in June.”
· Group qualifying debuts.
Single-car qualifying on road courses will be shelved this week and later this summer at The Glen. Instead, cars will be assigned to one of five or six groups based on practice speeds, slowest to fastest.
Within those groups, cars will be separated fastest to slowest and released at intervals. Each group will have a window in which cars can complete their qualifying – each likely receiving three laps at full speed.
A car’s fastest lap will count and the field will be set based upon overall qualifying speeds.
The process has been used previously for NASCAR Nationwide Series road course qualifications.
· Success vs. survival
The list of Sonoma winners includes some of NASCAR’s most decorated competitors including NASCAR Hall of Fame members Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace. Six Sprint Cup champions have won at the track. Points leader Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon won at Sonoma in championship seasons – Johnson the most recent in 2010.
Last year’s winner, Clint Bowyer, finished second in final points standings.
Gordon is Sonoma’s all-time winner with five victories. There have been no repeat winners in the past eight Sonoma races.
Conversely, how a driver does – or doesn’t do – didn’t have a dramatic effect on the most recent Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™. Seven of the 12 post-season finalists failed to score a top-10 finish at Sonoma in 2012.
· Danica Patrick makes history – again.
No female driver has competed in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway. Patrick will be the first although the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet has a significant body of work at the track. She has seven starts in the IndyCar Series with a best finish of fifth among three top 10s.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who leads Patrick by four points in Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, likewise is a Sonoma Sprint Cup novice. The two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion has a best road racing finish of fourth in last year’s Nationwide Glen event.
· “Ringers” don’t often ring the bell
Road racing specialists – often dubbed “ringers” – fit the category of many being called; few if any answering. Mark Donohue was the last such competitor to score a NASCAR premier series road race victory on Jan. 21, 1973 at Riverside International Raceway.
Canadian Ron Fellows heads the list of such drivers vying for a spot in Sunday’s race. Fellows, who’ll drive Joe Falk’s No. 33 Chevrolet, has made 23 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts with a pair of second-place finishes at Watkins Glen his best performances. With six NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck victories, Fellows could become the 24th to sweep all three national series – and first to do it with road race wins.