SONOMA, Calif. – The NASCAR Cup Series drivers are facing challenges a whole lot tougher than a right turn Sunday in their final race before the brief midseason break.
They've got to figure out how to navigate Sonoma Raceway's normal elevation changes, along with the return to the old road course layout in wine country — and they're doing it all in the still-unfamiliar Next Gen car. Many drivers on Saturday said they felt uncomfortable in the new car on the old course, and they're all hoping it will lead to exciting racing.
“There's just a lot more unknowns, and you don't get a lot of time for adjustments,” Michael McDowell said. “It's tight and twisty, so it's easy to get off track here. This is the short course version of a road course, so it's tough.”
Road course proficiency is more important than ever in the Cup Series, which has six such circuits on its schedule this season. But Sonoma is only the second road course of the season, which means the teams are still trying to understand the details of the new car's handling and setup for the challenges of the more complete racing presented on these tracks.
And they didn't learn a whole lot that will be useful from the early-season race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which was the first Next Gen experience on a road course.
“It's really tight and narrow for a road course,” Chase Briscoe said of Sonoma Raceway. “Totally different from COTA. Most of the guys have raced here before ... but the cars are so different now, it's hard to really (compare) apples to apples. I'm excited to run this layout, because this is the course I watched growing up."
Defending champion and five-time pole sitter Kyle Larson claimed he didn't notice a huge difference between the road course challenges of COTA and Sonoma, other than deeper braking zones. Martin Truex Jr. was among several drivers worried about the slickness of the track and the challenges of readying the car for both left and right turns.
“I think the new car changes everything (on road courses),” said Truex, who has won on both course layouts at Sonoma. “The track has so much to say about how you can make passes and how much you can pass. ... You have to work hard to set your car up to go left and right equally.”
DOWN THE CHUTE
Sonoma Raceway is fully open for the first time since before the coronavirus pandemic, and Northern California's fans are packing a renovated track that is welcoming the return of a familiar layout.
The course is back to the Chute, which was used from 1998-2018 before Sonoma went with the longer Carousel setup in its past two editions. Briscoe is among the drivers who haven’t run a Cup Series race on the Chute configuration.
“Personally, I enjoyed the carousel,” Larson said. "It added a left-hander, more normal-feeling corner to me. ... I don’t know the reasoning behind changing it back. Maybe it’s just better viewing for the fans or something. But it doesn’t really matter a whole lot. We know what to expect because we’ve raced on this layout for a long time. It should be fine.”
THE BIG PAYBACK
Ross Chastain met with Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott to air their differences after their eventful race last week at Gateway.
Chastain sent Hamlin into the barriers with a tap from behind midway through the race, and he later sent Elliott skidding sideways on the track with another tap from behind when he attempted to split two cars in a three-wide situation.
While Chastain was remorseful for his recklessness, Hamlin publicly promised payback will be coming for the 29-year-old Trackhouse Racing driver.
“We're big boys, and they can handle it as they see fit,” Chastain said Saturday. “And I'll try to be better. ... I unplugged from social media this week, and that was good. I should probably do that more often. We all should.”
None of the three drivers shared many details of their conversations, but Elliott appeared to be more publicly conciliatory than Hamlin.
“I tried to talk to him as I would have wanted somebody to talk to me,” Elliott said, noting that Chastain reached out to him first. “He can take my opinion or not, and I'm fine with it.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Elliott unsurprisingly is FanDuel Sportbook's 11-to-2 favorite at Sonoma, given his road course acumen. Larson is right behind him at 13 to 2 on the track closest to his hometown in the Sacramento suburbs, while Truex is going off at 9 to 1.
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