Everything is different when NASCAR heads to the West Coast each June for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1).
For a sport born in the Southeast and raised on moonshine, being in the heart of Napa Valley wine country is almost like being on another continent.
Here, the locals drink cabernet or pinot noir instead of cherry bounce or applejack and the local culture is way, way different than what you’ll find in Daytona Beach or Charlotte. Not better, not worse, but different.
That said, what Sonoma has in common with Daytona Beach and Charlotte is we’re going racing on Sunday. And it ought to be a tremendously exciting race to watch. Here are six storylines from Sonoma so far this weekend.
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There are six road-course specialists who have been given rides for this weekend. These are guys who race sports cars or open-wheel cars and have vast experience in turning right as well as left.
Here’s where all six qualified: Billy Johnson (above), 26th; Alon Day, 32nd; Josh Bilicki, 33rd; Boris Said, 34th; Kevin O’Connell, 36th; and Tommy Regan, 37th. This just in: None of these six will win on Sunday. Regardless of their talent, none of the six is in a fast car.
Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, is skipping the race to be home with his wife, Aleah, who just gave birth to a daughter Halle Lane. If Wolfe had to miss a race, this was a good one to sit out.
Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, will be one of the favorites to win at Daytona next week, but at Sonoma, he’s never finished better than 10th. On Sunday, he’ll start 23rd.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. used to hate racing at Sonoma, but he’s been fast all weekend and qualified a solid 10th. Earnhardt said the reason his Sonoma performance has improved in recent years is about as basic as basic gets: He has better cars now.
“I have to give the speed in the car a lot of credit,” said Earnhardt. “When you are in a car that is making it difficult, no matter how good or talented you are at a road course, you are going to make mistakes and you won’t really learn exactly how you need to get around here or what you are looking for until you get in a car that gives you that opportunity.”
For the first time, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 will be run in three stages over 110 laps, with the stage breaks coming at 25 and 50 laps. On Sunday, you’ll see drivers and teams use all kinds of strategies to either win stage points early or be in contention to win at the end. And right now, it’s all kind of guesswork.
“I feel like if you win the first stage, you're probably not going to have a chance to win the race at the end. I just don't know how it's going to play out. I think you're going to see a lot of guys pit before the first stage is over,” said Martin Truex Jr., who will start third in the race. “… It's definitely going to be interesting.
Tire wear will play a critical factor in Sunday’s race. Put simply, tires wear out awfully quickly here and when they do, times slow dramatically. Managing tire wear over the length of the race will be wild.
“This is the Darlington of road courses,” said Jamie McMurray, who qualified second. “There is … gosh, two and a half seconds maybe over the course of a run in tire fall off. … Turn 7 and Turn 11 when you get 20 laps on your tires you give the car 15 or 20 percent throttle and it spins the tires. You literally can’t give it any gas. It will not go. The car doesn’t stop very well, it doesn’t turn, but it certainly doesn’t accelerate very well. And that is why tires make such a difference here.”
Without question, Chip Ganassi Racing has stolen the show this weekend, with Kyle Larson qualifying on the pole and teammate Jamie McMurray on the outside of him on Row 1. These two have been fast all weekend — actually they’ve been fast all year — and are the two clear favorites on Sunday.
Larson leads the series points and his confidence is sky high, having already posted double-digit wins this season between the NASCAR Monster Energy and XFINITY Series, as well as his beloved sprint cars. At this point, it would be foolish to bet against him.
But if the CGR Chevy drivers falter, the Toyotas of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, the respective third and fourth qualifiers, could be there to pounce.
And Sunday afternoon, the talking will stop and the racing will start, and not a moment too soon.