SAN FRANCISCO — When Martin Truex Jr., the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, talks about the challenges of winning at Sonoma Raceway, the list is long.
The turns. The elevation gains. The blind curves. The braking. The accelerating. Pit management.
And then there’s the heat.
Truex, who won at Sonoma in 2013, said the cockpit can get to upward of 125 degrees. For 110 laps. It brought to mind a human Crock-Pot. It takes a certain amount of zen to endure that — especially when Sonoma’s layout demands extreme focus for every millisecond of the race.
And then there is the very personal challenge for Truex — making amends for his poor finish here last season despite his championship run. And the need to breathe some fire into this season, one which has been every bit a mixed bag for the Furniture Row Racing driver.
But Truex, speaking to a group of journalists on the eve of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 festivities, spoke admiringly, almost lovingly, of the track that presents so many challenges to driver and crew alike.
“It’s very, very different,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain that to someone who hasn’t done it.”
Luckily, Truex doesn’t have to explain it, he just has to master it. Sunday. Because the race comes at a crucial time for him. He won at Pocono three weeks ago and is trying to instill some consistency into a season that has been anything but predictable.
“This is the first weekend in a while that everything made sense; we had kind of a game plan and everything went the way we thought it would,” Truex told reporters after his Pocono win.
That is telling. For a driver to be almost surprised that things made sense, that things followed his team’s game plan, is not the greatest sign. But if one is looking for silver linings, it’s good that it’s happening now.
He sits in sixth place in the Cup series standings, just behind Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer. Bowyer finished second here last year; Keselowski finished third. Still, Truex’s aim has to be to break up the two-man show between points leaders Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.
He races this track well. He was in great shape last season until engine trouble sank him. He finished an uncharacteristic 37th.
And Saturday, he announced his intentions by earning a front-row start just behind pole winner Kyle Larson. Truex has 11 starts in the top 10 this season.
This race could right a season that has been an up-and-down roller coaster — much like the track at Sonoma. But Truex, as much as anybody driving Sunday, can make gains on this course. He’s won here. That long list of difficulties this course presents? He likes it.
“The driver can make a huge different at this racetrack,” he said.
When asked about the crucible this course puts driver and machine through, Truex struggled to put it into words.
“From watching, you can’t really get that sense — how on edge you are, how out of control you are,” he said.
Lose focus and miss your marks on the turns? Trouble.
“You really can’t see the exit,” he said. “The mental focus it takes to hit your corner, it’s a challenge.”