By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
SONOMA, California — The return of the “Carousel” wasn’t the sole subject of both Friday practice sessions for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
Instead, all eyes were on both Kyle Larson and last year’s winner Martin Truex, Jr. Both competitors set blistering pace on a the dirty track surface, but the sessions proved to be relatively tamed. On the opposite end, some competitors such as Bubba Wallace and Cody Ware, struggled in both sessions as it pertained of finding a proper groove to get around the demanding road course.
The morning session saw a lot of fast times in the final minutes of the session, which was predominately led by Joey Logano up to that point. Finally, it was Truex who wound up setting the early pace with a time 96.168 seconds (95.326 mph), faster than Logano’s teammate Ryan Blaney’s time of 95.299 seconds. Chris Buescher, Jimmie Johnson and Michael McDowell rounded out the top-five.
Truex came to Sonoma cold turkey as he didn’t utilize the simulator to have a good frame of what to expect on “The Carousel,” citing that a driver can’t get a true feel compared to actually running the circuit.
“Took a little getting used to, I’ll tell you that,” said Truex. “The only thing I didn’t prep to come here was the simulator a little bit. You only get so much out of that. All the visual queues are there, but you don’t have any of the feel or sensation of speed, the G-Forces and feel of the rises and falls. To go out there cold turkey this morning was a little bit weird.”
Once he got fully adjusted to the changes, Truex was confident that his No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry will be once again competitive at Sonoma.
“It was hairy the first couple of laps, trying to figure it out,” Truex commented. “The track was really dirty, which always is here, so it took awhile to get it figure out. Once we were done with practice, I was really comfortable with the track and the changes made to our car. Looking forward to lay down a good qualifying lap tomorrow and have a shot of winning this thing on Sunday.”
In the afternoon session, the track got cooler and it was Larson who set the fastest overall time of 95.026 seconds (95.469 mph), improving from 13th.
Larson saw the track changes being no different other than just additional corners as he seeks for his third straight Sonoma pole tomorrow at 3:10 pm EST.
“It’s not a big deal to any of us out there,” said Larson. “We ran a good lap in our mock run today, so I feel we’ll have a good shot at another pole tomorrow. I would like to better in race trim, but if we get another pole that’ll be pretty cool.”
Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kurt Busch, was second fastest, 0.483 seconds slower. Followed by another pair of teammates trailed the two-car stable, and those were Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer.
The next two behind the top-four represent the fastest Toyota drivers, but not from the top dogs. Instead, it was Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto and Gaunt Brothers Racing’s Parker Kligerman, who put up a tremendous time.
Truex on the other hand ended up 12th in the session, the first fastest Toyota driver.
As it pertained to the track surface, it’s typical to Truex that it’s going to be sensitive due in most part of the heat. However, with cooler conditions and faster speeds, the main takeaway was those conditions are going to best represent Sunday’s race.
“The biggest deal is every time we show up here, we’re the first cars on track and it’s just really dirty,” Truex explained. “We fought that for quite while and we’ve seen the speeds really pick up quite a lot in the second practice. The race starts a little bit earlier than we ran the second practice today, but I think it’s still the best gauge of what we’re going to have. Just based on the track being clean.”
Since it’s an impound race, the setup drivers qualify on Saturday is what their racing with on Sunday. Truex, who has yet to score a Busch Pole Award this season, commented that the No. 19 team are a bit concerned on how they’ve qualified and unsure how to fix it. At the same time, the team are more focused on race day as Truex’s best starting position was fifth at Richmond.
“Your main goal is to race well and you just kind of take qualifying as it comes,” said Truex. “If we’re off a little bit, sobeit. We just do what we have to do to race good and that’s hurt us a little bit in qualifying.”
Larson, who’s won the last two pole awards at the now 2.52-mile circuit, said he doesn’t come here to go for poles, but simply to win. A feat that’s eluded the Elk Grove native over the past few years.
“We come here to win the race and have the setup that’s capable of winning. It just happens to work out where I’ve been good for a short run my whole career. It seems like it’s kind of the same thing again this weekend. We’ve tried all sorts of different stuffs, so maybe it’s my fault why I’m only good in qualifying.”
Sunday’s 90-lap race will begin at 3:00pm PST with Truex eyeing for his third Sonoma triumph.