Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – SONOMA, CA – The recent retirements of NASCAR’s top Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series road racing aces Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon have created an opportunity for a new generation of road racing aces.
And while many drivers in the early days of the sport essentially “tolerated” the road course stops, as the sport has progressed drivers have seized on the importance of honing their left-AND-right turn skills. From taking refresher courses with instructors like Bob Bondurant or Skip Barber, to renting tracks for lapping days, to today’s easy option simulator, simulator and more simulator.
This weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway (Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the first road course test of the 2019 season and there are only two multi-time winners in the field, two-time Sonoma champ Kyle Busch and two-time winner Martin Truex Jr., who arrives this weekend as the defending race winner.
Beyond Busch and Truex there are only four other former winners in the field total – Jimmie Johnson (2010), Kurt Busch (2011), Clint Bowyer (2014) and Kevin Harvick (2017).
If you add in the other longtime road course venue, Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International – there are three more road course past winners: Joey Logano (2015), Denny Hamlin (2016) and Chase Elliott (2018). Plus, Ryan Blaney won the Charlotte ROVAL debut last year.
Noticeably absent from the Sonoma winner’s list is the reigning series champion Joey Logano, his Team Penske teammate, 2012 series champ Brad Keselowski, Truex’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones as well as current title chasers such as Elliott, Blaney, Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman to name a few.
This season, Sonoma Raceway will feature a new look-old look course with the addition of the famed Carousel turn. It extends the track from 1.99-miles to 2.52-miles and creates a legitimate new challenge for the entire field. No one entered in Sunday’s race will have competed in a Cup Series race on this course layout. The last time it was used during a Cup race was 1997.
Among those still trying to sip from their first Sonoma victory goblet are current series champion Logano and his teammates Keselowski and Blaney.
Logano is 0-for-10, Keselowski is 0-for-9 and the 25-year old Blaney is 0-for-3. The trio have a combined for six top 10s total. Third place is the career best showing for both Logano (2013) and Keselowski (2017) at Sonoma. Blaney’s best work was ninth place in 2017 while driving for the Wood Brothers team.
Hamlin, who like Logano has won at the historic Watkins Glen road course, is 0-for-13 at Sonoma. He was involved, however, in one of – if not THE – most dramatic finishes in recent Sonoma history, finishing runner-up to recent NASCAR Hall of Fame honoree Tony Stewart in a last lap duel to the checkered flag in 2016. Hamlin has led 96 laps at Sonoma in six races, including the last three series’ visits to the course. He has a pair of top fives – and three top 10s – in the last three races.
Chase Elliott, 23, last year’s Watkins Glen winner, has yet to lead a lap at Sonoma, but his best finish in three starts is fourth, last year. He was eighth in 2017 and has made steady progress toward a trophy.
Kyle Larson, 26, a racing hero in his native California, has won the pole position the last two series stops in Sonoma, but is still looking for his first top 10 in what will now be his sixth race. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s best showing is 12th in 2016.
Both Elliott and Larson earned resounding victories at Sonoma in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West earlier in their careers.
“I have enjoyed road racing in these cars,” said Elliott, who drives the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 for Hendrick Motorsports, which is the winningest team (six victories) at Sonoma.
“I think road course racing suits these cars well, which is fun. We don’t do it a whole lot and that makes it cool when we do have a chance. I’ve enjoyed it. Sonoma is a very tough race track and it’s been an extreme challenge for me to try and get around there at a decent pace. I always look forward to going out there. It’s a cool part of the country and since we only go there once a year, that’s what makes it special.”
FINAL RACE OF THE TRIPLE TRUCK CHALLENGE
This Saturday’s CarShield 200 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (10 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the third and final leg of the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series’ inaugural Triple Truck Challenge. Last week’s race winner Brett Moffitt and his GMS Racing team are eligible for a $150,000 bonus should he win again this week at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. A $50,000 incentive awaits a first-time winner.
As is so often the case in this series, there is plenty of dramatic opportunity. Not only does Moffitt stand to win the big paycheck, but another victory would make him the first multi-time winner among series regulars. John Hunter Nemechek is the only driver to win at Iowa and Gateway consecutively, doing so in 2017.
Certainly a new race winner will emerge with no former Gateway winners entered. Last year’s runner-up Todd Gilliland is hoping that’s promising news for him. The 19-year-old finished runner-up to Justin Haley by 0.753-second. And the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver is so eager to earn his first series win and has turned in a solid season effort. He has three top-10 finishes in the last four races and won the pole position and led a season best 31 laps at Texas. His best showing in 2019 is third at Kansas.
Gilliland’s KBM teammate Harrison Burton, meanwhile, is in fine shape toward a Sunoco Rookie of the Year crown. The son of former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Jeff Burton, brings a on a streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes and is coming off a career best of third place at Iowa – a mark he equaled at Dover earlier this season. He’s only led two laps in the No. 18 KBM Toyota Tundra – one at Atlanta and one at Dover.
For the second consecutive week, Gilliland and Burton will have ARCA Menards Series star Chandler Smith as a teammate in the truck race. The 16-year-old Smith led 55 laps from the pole position last week at Iowa and finished eighth. And that was only hours AFTER had he won his second ARCA Menards Series race on the season (fourth in his career.)