Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

After missing out on a trip to California wine country last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NASCAR Cup Series heads back to Sonoma Raceway this weekend for Sunday’s running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

A 12-turn technical road course situated about 30 miles north of San Francisco, Sonoma is one of seven road courses on the 2021 schedule, with Sonoma first joining the circuit back in 1989.

Over the years, the course at Sonoma Raceway has gone through a few configuration changes. When the track was first placed on the schedule as a replacement for the now-defunct Riverside International Raceway, the layout included a 2.52-mile course that used the drag strip as part of the course.

However, in 1998, the track went through its first major reconfiguration, with an 890-foot chute placed between Turns 4 and 7, cutting off the “Carousel” section of the track and dropping the track length down to 1.949 miles. The track went through a final reconfiguration in 2001 with the installation of Turn 7a, which brought the track to a 1.990 mile, 12-turn layout that was in place through 2018.

In a throwback to the track’s early days, Sonoma reverted back to the original layout in 2019, with the reintroduction of the Carousel, and the same layout will be used again this weekend.

Fresh off its record breaking 269th win at Charlotte last week, Hendrick Motorsports will lead the field to green on Sunday, with Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott starting on the front row. Another Hendrick car in William Byron will start third, followed by Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Tyler Reddick.

Martin Truex, Jr., who has won the last two races at Sonoma, will start mid-pack in 17th.

By the Numbers

What: Toyota Save Mart 350, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race No. 16 of 36

Where: Sonoma Raceway – Sonoma, California (First Race: 1989)

TV/Radio: FOX Sports 1, 4:00 pm ET / PRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size:  2.520 mile, 12-turn road course

Race Length: 90 laps, 365 kilometers (226.8 miles)

Stage Lengths: First two stages – 20 laps each; Final Stage – 50 laps

2019 Race Winner: Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Toyota (Started eighth, 59 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Kyle Larson – (74.186 seconds, 96.568 mph – 6/27/2015)

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Sonoma Raceway:

  1. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 105.2
  2. Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 96.8
  3. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 94.5
  4. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 93.7
  5. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 89.4
  6. Ryan Newman – No. 6 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford – 85.7
  7. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 84.9
  8. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 83.0
  9. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 82.7
  10. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 78.9

From the Pit Box

With Sunday’s race marking the first race with the low downforce package on the current Sonoma layout, crew chief Greg Ives detailed the challenges that lie ahead this weekend.

“Well, the new one is the carousel, right?” Ives said. “Ultimately, the carousel is a high-speed left-hander that Sonoma really never had. You had Turn 1. You maybe had something in the ess. You had those higher speed lefts were minimal. Now you have the carousel, where it’s kind of off camber. It’s just kind of an awkward turn for the drivers to navigate and getting tight-off there and setting up for a really big braking and passing zone has definitely added some more difficulty to Sonoma.

“It has taken away some heavy braking zones into Turn 4 and Turn 7, where you typically get wheel-hop and those types of things. It gets a little wide, and then quickly narrow going into Turn 7. So, there’s just a lot of different nuances. And then you need to worry about the tire fall-off, right? You don’t need to stop before a Stage. You really just are playing that tire strategy game the whole race. The whole thing.

“Yes, it’s difficult to win at Sonoma. I remember when Jimmie (Johnson) won his first time there. It took a mistake by another driver for him to win. So, no matter if he did everything right, it comes down to one guy making a mistake, maybe not yourself, to win that race. So, it’s a difficult race track and a fun place to go. Flying out there is difficult sometimes, too, just how long it is. But generally, Sonoma is unlike most places we go as far as road courses. You can only tie in a very small amount of set up from other tracks that we’ve been at already.”

Last Time at Sonoma

A caution-free race turned into a battle between Joe Gibbs Racing teammates to settle the 2019 running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350, with Martin Truex, Jr. keeping hold of his reign on victory lane at Sonoma.

Truex would make his final pit stop with 27 laps to go, as his teammate Kyle Busch made his final trip to pit road three laps later. Once both were back on track, Busch had more than eight seconds to make up over the final 24 laps.

With fresher tires at his disposal, Busch chewed up Truex’s lead as the laps wound down, eventually closing to within a second, but could progress no further as the superior handling of Truex’s car ultimately won out and he cruised to victory.

The win was the third for Truex at Sonoma and his fourth of the season, which Joe Gibbs Racing had dominated up to that point in the 2019 campaign. Truex’s victory also marked the first repeat winner at Sonoma since Jeff Gordon won three in a row from 1998 to 2000.

“Just trying to get all I could out of the car, not burn my tires up too much,” Truex said when asked what was going through his head in the final run to the finish. “Just hit my marks.  I knew he pitted a little bit later there at the end, so he had a little fresher tires.  He was beating us pretty good there for a while.

“I just had to try to manage my car the best I could to not burn the tires off trying to go faster than it wanted to go.

“I knew if we could just maintain a decent gap for long enough, we would start to equal out.  With 10 to go, we were equaling lap times.  From there, all right, you got to run 10 perfect laps and not screw up.  Was able to do that fortunately and hang onto it.

“We had to pass some lapped cars.  Luckily, we were able to catch them in the right places to not lose too much time for Kyle.  We were able to hold him off.

“Feels great.  Feels amazing to win here two in a row.  The thought it could be three is pretty phenomenal.  Thankful for an incredible team, cars, everybody that makes this thing go for us. Really lucky to drive great racecars.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.