Photo: Blaine Ohigashi/Getty Images

Up to Speed – Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads into week 16 of the 2017 season, the series gets ready to make its first right hand turns of the year. This week, the series makes the trek out to California wine country to take on the 1.990 mile Sonoma Raceway, a 12-turn technical road course situated about 30 miles north of San Francisco. This week’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 consists of 110 laps, which calculates out to 218.9 miles, or 350 kilometers.

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 in 1989, it was 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 its current 1.990 mile, 12 turn layout.

Since the implementation of the double file restarts at all NASCAR events a handful of years ago, the racing at the road courses has been taken up a notch, with action from start to finish. In the past eight races at the track, there have been eight different winners, so will we see the ninth different winner or will a driver who has already captured a win at the winding road course come out on top?

By the Numbers

Opened: 1968 (First NASCAR Race: 1989)

Track/Race Length: 1.990 mile, 12 turn road course (110 laps, 218.9 miles/350 kilometers)

Stage Lengths: Stage 1 and 2: 25 laps each; Final Stage: 60 laps

Pit Road Speed: 40 mph

Pace Car Speed: 45 mph

2016 Race Winner: Tony Stewart – No. 14 Chevrolet (Started 10th, 22 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet (74.186 seconds, 96.568 mph – 6/27/2015)

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings:

  • Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 107.8 (1 win)
  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 99.9 (1 win)
  • Clint Bowyer – No. 14 Ford – 90.2 (1 win)
  • Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 90.1 (2 wins)
  • Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet – 90.0 (Best finish: 12th)
  • Ryan Newman – No. 31 Chevrolet – 88.3 (Best finish: 2nd)
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 87.9 (Best finish: 2nd)
  • AJ Allmendinger – No. 47 Chevrolet – 87.5 (Best finish: 7th)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 78 Toyota – 87.0 (1 win)
  • Kasey Kahne – No. 5 Chevrolet – 86.9 (1 win)

From the Driver’s Seat

“Sonoma is a real technical racetrack,” AJ Allmendinger said. “It’s like a short track. You are beating and banging on each other. You can make passes there. The tires go away quick, but if you can conserve the tires better you can make passes. It’s a challenging racetrack. The strategy has got you wondering when that last yellow is going to fall. If that yellow falls, do you pit, do you not pit? It’s a challenge from start to finish because the opportunity is there to make a lot of mistakes and slide off the racetrack or to run into each other, which makes for great racing. In the end, I think it puts on one of the best races.”

Last Time at Sonoma

After a pre-season back injury forced Tony Stewart to miss the first eight races of the 2016 season, Tony Stewart was in dire need of a win to be able to clinch a playoff berth in his final season in the Cup Series when the calendar rolled to June and Sonoma Raceway loomed large on the horizon.

Though Stewart had won at the road course twice in his career prior to last June’s race, things didn’t exactly get off on the right foot for the No. 14 team as they hung around the top 15 to top 20 for the majority of the day. However, a strategy call by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz to pit under green around lap 87 would be the turning point in the day for Stewart.

A caution for debris at lap 88 would bring the leaders down pit road for service, while Stewart was able to stay out and take over the race lead.

With the fast Toyotas of Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr. behind him, Stewart held his ground until the second to last lap of the race, when he made a mistake heading into Turn 7 and wheelhopped, allowing Hamlin close the gap between the two.

The next time into Turn 7, Hamlin was close enough to dive inside of Stewart and get past him as they headed down through the Esses and toward Turn 11.

Much like Hamlin did in Turn 7, Stewart made his move in Turn 11, diving inside of Hamlin and bodyslamming him into the outside wall before making the pass and sailing onto the checkered flag and victory lane.

The win was the first for Stewart since 2013 and would wind up being the final win of his Cup career before he hung up the helmet at season’s end.

“With about eight to go was the first time I thought, hey, we might actually have a shot to hold onto this, and I actually got a little bit emotional thinking about it while I was driving,” said Stewart.  “But you stay so focused and you have to.  That was when they got racing each other and there was a bit of a gap and I had a little bit of a breather there to kind of think that once Denny got closing in, it was back to business.  You didn’t have time to think about wine and flowers and ponies and all that stuff.  I had to get back to business.  But it was nice.”

“I got the flag at the flag stand, and I thought, well I’ll turn and come back down pit road backwards.  And then I was like, this is my last time here.  I want to go one more lap, and I went one more lap.  I didn’t just drive the lap, I drove up there and where the crowd was, I did burnouts and revved the motor onto the chip.  I’m sure Hendrick is going to love that.”

“But it just was fun to say, hey, thanks.  This place has meant a lot to me.  It’s nice to — if I don’t win another one, it’s cool to win the last one here.  If it doesn’t happen again, it’s cool.  I’ll be all right if this is the last place I win one.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, June 23

  • MENCS Practice (3:00 pm to 4:55 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Final Practice (6:30 pm to 7:55 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, June 24

  • MENCS Qualifying (2:45 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, June 25

  • MENCS Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3:00 pm – 110 laps, 218.9 miles – FOX Sports 1)

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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.