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Parity reigns for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Sonoma (w/video)

  • 6/24/2013: A1:

    PC: Martin Truex Jr. and his pit crew celebrate with champagne after winning Sunday's 25th Annual Toyota/Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway, June 23, 2013. (Conner Jay/Press Democrat)

    [NASCAR]

Sonoma is one of just two road courses on the schedule, but that wouldn't seem to provide an explanation. In fact, you might expect the opposite effect, since some prominent oval drivers simply don't perform well on the road, limiting the number of potential winners. Indeed, the other Sprint Cup road course, Watkins Glen in New York state, hasn't produced nearly as much variety lately. Tony Stewart won there five times between 2002 and 2009, Kyle Busch won in 2008 and 2013, and Marcos Ambrose took back-to-back checkered flags in 2011 and 2012.

Of course, Sonoma bears little resemblance to Watkins Glen other than incorporating right turns into the program. Sonoma has more elevation changes, fewer high-speed straightaways and a coarser road surface.

"It's more like what I like to call a parking lot road course," driver Brad Keselowski said. "Like you were going through the Wal-Mart parking lot, as fast as you could. It's old, wore out, tight corners, no real chance to build up any speed. That's what Sears Point's like."

Keselowski said Watkins Glen has a section of track where cars hit 180 mph. Sonoma has just one spot where a driver can crack 130.

"This is the short track of road racing," Vickers said. "And it has pros and cons, right? I think it makes great racing, but there's just so many variables."

Ah, the quirks of Sonoma. Every track is a little different than the next, but our local 1.99-mile ribbon of tarmac adds a handful of wild cards that make it unique. For one, the length of the NASCAR races — 218.9 miles over 110 laps — winds up putting the race teams awkwardly in the middle of two-pit and three-pit strategies; sometimes they guess right, sometimes they don't. Tire strategy is a big deal here, too, because the rugged surface tends to eat tires like Oreos.

"This is the toughest race of the year to me, as a driver," Keselowski said. "You have strategy that comes into play. You have long runs where the tires fall off that come into play. Seems like there's always someone that kicks dirt up on the track, that comes into play. And then somebody breaks down and puts oil on the track. It's just a thousand things."

Counted among the 1,000 are calamitous restarts. Because Sonoma has so few legitimate passing zones, drivers tend to be extra aggressive here on the rolling starts after caution flags.

"The restarts are always a mess," Vickers said. " ... On a restart here, you always end up three or four wide in the braking zone, with a spotter that can barely see, and inevitably two or three guys that have completely overdriven the entry. And you're just hoping you're not on the outside of one of them when they go. Their tires are gonna slide into the corner."

Wrecks happen at every NASCAR track. At Sonoma they frequently define the race, as do mechanical problems. All the inherent downshifting and the lack of forward bite by the tires can really stress the cars.


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