Column By: HOLY CAIN / NASCAR – SONOMA, CA – New venue, new winner. First stop. First win. That’s certainly what a substantial portion of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field is hoping for this weekend at the season’s first road course event at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California.
The series returns from a Father’s Day off-weekend and heads West to California’s scenic wine country for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway (Sunday, June 23 at 3 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). And while the season’s four-time winner Kyle Busch and three-time victors Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski have been collecting trophies left and right – the season’s first true test of left-and-right may be just what some other of the consensus championship contenders need to score that first win of 2019.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. arrives in Northern California as the defending race winner and his JGR teammate Kyle Busch has a pair of wins at the track as well. But there are four other drivers ranked among the Playoff’s Top 16 who have won at Sonoma before, still looking for a first sip of winner’s wine this weekend as they march towards the Fall Playoffs.
Four former Sonoma winners – Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson – are all winless on the season, but ranked inside that Playoff’s Top 16 arriving in California. By their standards a win this week isn’t just do-able, it’s over-due.
Harvick won at Sonoma in 2017 and was runner-up to Truex last year. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang earned eight wins a year ago in his valiant challenge for the 2018 title and had scored five trophies by Father’s Day. But this season, Harvick shows up in his native California eager and highly motivated to earn his first victory of the season and restore his championship mojo.
Harvick has finished in the top-10 or better in four of the last five Sonoma races. His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer boasts the same favorable statistic – in fact the 2012 Sonoma winner was third last year, runner-up in 2017 and third in 2015. His eight top-five finishes is most in the field this week.
Kurt Busch, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, won at Sonoma in 2011 and has finished in the top-10 in seven of the last eight races there – including runner-up to his younger brother Kyle in 2015.
Perhaps no driver in the top-16 is more motivated to sip a glass of winner’s wine and hoist a trophy then seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who is looking for his first victory in over two seasons. He won at Sonoma in 2010 and had top-10s in 2014 and 2015.
It’s an interesting evolution for road racing in NASCAR. In the early days of the sport, drivers tended to be all-in or way-off when it came to the non-oval venues. Some certainly adapted well to the road course challenges, others worked hard at it and even attended Bob Bondurant race schools to bone up. Some had previous road course experience in other series.
Ricky Rudd, who always liked road course racing, won the very first Sonoma race in 1989 and NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace – another who took this form of racing well – won the next year. Each of the two drivers won twice at Sonoma over their careers. Ernie Irvan, another Californian, scored two wins at Sonoma in the early 1990s and NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin won at Sonoma in 1997.
Even in the years thereafter, renowned road racers such as Robby Gordon (2003), and Juan Pablo Montoya (2007) scored Sonoma trophies and set the bar. And new NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, who was born minutes away from the Sonoma course, also took to that brand of competition, winning a track record five times in his career – including three consecutive times from 1998-2000.
But as the sport evolved and the championship format changed – essentially shortening the regular season by 10 races to make way for the Playoffs – it became essential for all the Monster Energy Series drivers to shift their road course game into a higher gear.
At the series’ other traditional road course track, the historic Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, there have been five different winners in the last five races from A.J. Allmendinger in 2014 (his first series victory) to first-time road course winners Joey Logano in 2015, Denny Hamlin in 2016 and Chase Elliott in 2018. Ryan Blaney scored his first non-oval series win on the Charlotte ROVAL’s debut last year – a hybrid course of infield turns and the Charlotte Motor Speedway banking.
The unique challenges presented by Sonoma’s road course – including the reintroduction of the famed “Carousel” turn – present a prime opportunity for some of the sport’s biggest names and championship hopefuls to break into the Busch-Truex-Keselowski “Big Winner’s” party this season. And it makes this week’s stop even more crucial in the championship setting.