NASCAR drivers make quick adjustment to Sonoma’s road course

Kasey Kahne heads downhill during practice Friday at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway.
Kasey Kahne heads downhill during practice Friday at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. Getty Images

NASCAR’s annual stop in California’s wine country means something different to drivers: it’s time to get reacquainted – and quickly – with the art of road-course racing.

All that muscle memory of turning left week after week goes out the window and into the golden hills surrounding Sonoma Raceway for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

For some, racing on Sonoma’s winding, 12-turn track is a welcome change.

“I love that NASCAR racing doesn’t do the same thing every week,” said Joey Logano, who won for the first time two weeks ago on Michigan’s 2-mile oval. “That’s what I love. If we ran road courses every week, I’d be sick of it. If we ran ovals every week, I’d get sick of running mile-and-a-halves or half-miles or superspeedways. It’s cool that we do different things and we have to challenge ourselves as drivers and as race teams to develop packages to go fast at each track.”

The challenges of racing at Sonoma – and at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, the other road course on the Cup schedule – are made all the tougher because of the small amount of seat time drivers have on road courses. With NASCAR limiting testing in recent years, the advantage is squarely with veterans who have multiple starts at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Rookie Ryan Blaney, for instance, is making his first road-course start Sunday.

You can feel the suspension, so it feels more similar to kind of a dirt track.

Kyle Larson

“We really don’t have an opportunity to (test) any more,” said Jimmie Johnson, who won at Sonoma in 2010. “There are a few simulators out there. So there’s a little bit of simulator time. That’s really it. I’m glad I’m a veteran and have been here quite a few times and not a young guy coming in and trying to figure this place out.”

One of those young guys is Kyle Larson, who has two career starts at Sonoma (with a best finish of 15th) and thinks he’s getting closer to figuring the track out. Larson, who is looking for his first career Cup victory, was impressive in practice Friday. He equates road-course racing to his days as a sprint-car driver on dirt tracks.

“I’m getting more experience, but still I’ve probably run (about) 10 road course races in my life,” said Larson. “But I like them because you can feel the car kind of move around a lot more. You can feel the suspension, so it feels more similar to kind of a dirt track. I don’t know if it’s the dirt track, but in sprint cars, the suspension moves around a lot and you can feel the balance of the car. On this stuff you can, too.

Sonoma and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International are the two road courses on NASCAR’s Cup schedule.

“On the ovals our cars are so stiff and rigid, you can’t really feel a whole lot with them.”

Another factor at Sonoma: the track is built on a hill, with an incline that reaches 160 feet at the top before heading down toward the start-finish line.

“The elevation changes are a key component here,” said Johnson. “As you’re coming around Turn 1, that long sweeping left-hander, you really don’t have to use the brakes much and that’s something different than the majority of the tracks we run at.”

160 Feet from bottom of Sonoma course to the top

The Sonoma race is considered a wild card, not only from the track’s configuration but because of it has produced 10 different winners in the past 11 years. Kyle Busch, who won at Sonoma on his way to last season’s Cup championship, is the only driver who has won twice during that stretch.

“Road course racing (is) just something different and it lends itself to a different fan base, probably,” Busch said. “A lot of fans who enjoy watching cars go left and go right. Maybe some IndyCar fans and some Formula 1 fans that just like road racing and what kind of goes on here with the NASCAR Cup cars.”

Said Johnson: “It’s fun racing. I wish we did more. To have two road course races a year, you just kind of get into the swing of things and we leave the Glen and you put it on the shelf and wait eight months or something and then do it again.”