SONOMA, Calif.—Sonoma Raceway celebrates its 50th anniversary with a significant change--as far as NASCAR racing is concerned.
For the first time since 1997, the iconic course will include “The Carousel” for NASCAR competition. Instead of the traditional nip-and-tuck with a single straightaway betweens Turns 4 and 7, Sonoma has returned to its full-figured self—all 12 turns and 2.52-miles.
The addition of sweeping Turns 5 and 6 has sent the most seasoned Monster Energy NASCAR Cup drivers to the simulator.
“I was in the simulator this week and got lost a couple times,” said 2017 winner Kevin Harvick. “Forgot where to turn. It is a lot different than I remember it from 1995. I told some of the guys in our organization that the last time I was there and ran this particular course, the course we have been running wasn’t even there. There was a mountain in the middle of the race track. A lot has changed.
“Running that portion of the race track, the lap time is longer and there are some different corners to deal with and from 3B all the way through 4, through the carousel and the exit of it and what is a different Turn 7 than the one we have been racing which was actually turn 5. It depends how you count the corners.”
Harvick was stout last June at Sonoma—on the 1.990-mile course. He led 35 of 110 laps but still couldn’t catch Martin Truex Jr., who extended his advantage over Harvick to a record-setting 10.5-second lead at the line for his second wine country win.
Between the carousel—and only 90 laps to contend for the win—Truex believes the Toyota/Save Mart 350 will be a game changer.
“We’ll have a fast left-hand turn that we’ve never had there before,” Truex said. “In the past, you focused on turning right and kind of threw the left-hand turns away. It’s kind of starting from scratch for everyone.
“I have it embedded in my mind the track we have run and what we’ve been doing for as long as I’ve raced there. On the old layout, I feel like I could go there and get 99 percent out of my car on Lap 1. Now you throw in the different turns, and I might just get lost and fly on by the turn into the carousel. It’s going to be fun to try to figure it out. It looks like a really neat course.”
Kyle Busch also has two wins at Sonoma—both since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008. In his last four starts on the old course, Busch’s average finish is 4.5. But he doesn’t expect the addition of the carousel to change the racing dynamic.
“It’s just going to add in – there’s a ramp almost kind of getting into the carousel, you have to be out of the gas before going up and over that hill,” Busch said. “Then throttle back into the turn, and that’s what I remember when I ran the course back in 1998 with Legends cars, but these cars are entirely different from Legends cars, so we’re definitely going to have some new learning to do. At least I know where I’m going when I’m down there.”
One driver you won’t see using the simulator is 2010 Sonoma winner—and seven-time Cup champion—Jimmie Johnson.
“No, I tried for a lot of years to use the simulator for every track,” Johnson said. “And trucks with high braking—so road courses specifically—it really didn’t help me any. On top of that, I got really nauseated inside of it. With those two things, I really haven’t done any road course testing in the simulator.
“Even on ovals, I found at places like a Martinsville, Richmond, the braking is so different that it takes me the first outing or two in the real car to get my braking marks back and that’s just time we don’t have anymore—especially with a 50-minute practice session. So, I’ve kind of shied away from the simulator this year more than ever.”