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Monster Energy Cup

Toyota/Save Mart 350


7 a.m.: Spectator gates open

11:20 a.m.: Toyota/Save Mart 350 driver introductions

Noon: Toyota/Save Mart 350 race

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.”

But so fond of this track is Truex that he told members of the media its undulations and curves and straights are etched into his brain.

“I can literally see it in my mind,” he said. “It makes it so much fun, makes it such a challenge.”

It would seem even for those who have driven this course — and driven it well — that it’s still tough to unlock the key to winning here. Knowing those rising, blind curves doesn’t guarantee success.

Far from it. In the last 15 years, only three drivers have won here twice. Drivers may know what’s coming at Sonoma Raceway, they may know it’s a whole different kettle of fish, but no one seems to have mastered it.

In turns two and three, it doesn’t matter if you know what’s coming or if it’s etched in your mind — you are still blind, Truex said.

Vehicle management is a challenge at Sonoma, too. The track eats tires for lunch.

“It took me a couple of years coming here to figure that out,” he said.

And it’s in this crucible that true drivers shine, he said. He’s smiling when he says it.

“Sonoma is a very unique racetrack,” he said. “It’s just a great road course. It’s a lot of fun to drive on. You are really able to show your talent in how you get around out there.”

All of that said, Truex knows full well how difficult it is to get one win on this track, let alone a second. But Truex needs this one.

And even though he’s in the driver’s seat, literally, he’s not making any predictions for one of the most unpredictable races in the series.

“You never know what you are going to get,” he said.

And that’s why tens of thousands of people will head to the raceway Sunday — to see one of the series’ most unpredictable races unfold.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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