ATW: Three Takeaways from a Wild Day in Sonoma

Nigel Kinrade/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

1) A fitting final Sonoma outing for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. tallied his third top 10 in what may be his final race in Sonoma. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. started strong, fell to the bottom of the field on his own accord and then methodically clawed his way back into the top 10.

In the end, the result felt fitting – a microcosm of Earnhardt’s entire career on the 1.990-mile Sonoma Raceway.

For the first 14 years of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series tenure, Sonoma was the bane of Earnhardt’s racing existence. Not only was the road course responsible for Earnhardt’s greatest struggles in NASCAR – with zero top 10s in his first 14 starts – it was also the site of his most harrowing moment behind the wheel.

It seems like a bygone era now, but it was just 13 years ago that Earnhardt sustained burns when he crashed in a one-off appearance with the American Le Mans Series, an incident which saw NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver left in a daze while engulfed in flame.

It wasn’t until 2014 that Earnhardt, with the help of then-crew chief Steve LeTarte and newfound aggression, finally managed a strong third-place run on the Sonoma, California course.

It took years of crashes, strategy failures and driver errors to get there, but the two-time Daytona 500 champion finally appeared to figure out the track that haunted him most. Earnhardt finished no worse than 11th in his final four years at Sonoma, each result better than any that came in his first 14 attempts.

His latest and likely final run at the track – a sixth-pace performance salvaged from an abysmal day – might’ve been his most impressive.

The Kannapolis, North Carolina native rolled off 10th with a strong No. 88 Chevrolet, but he lost all track position when a dive under Danica Patrick early left him spinning through the track’s final turn and into Patrick and Kyle Larson.

With a speeding penalties under the ensuing yellow, Earnhardt was sent to the tail-end of the field. From there, the chase was on.

He rose. He fell. He was involved in another incident with – who else – Larson and Patrick when a three-wide battle between the drivers sent Patrick spinning and ultimately ended Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s day.

In the end, the pit strategy executed by crew chief Greg Ives worked out well, and the 18-year Cup Series veteran salvaged his third top 10 in the last four years at Sonoma.

Much like his career at Sonoma, the path to success on Sunday wasn’t pretty. But he got there in the end.

He won’t have long to cherish the run. Next up is arguably Earnhardt’s biggest race of the year – what may be his final Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

2) Credit to the Sanctioning Body

Many drivers went off-course, but NASCAR let the second half of Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway stay green. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Just one week ago, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer were among those critical of NASCAR after a late caution for debris greatly altered the outcome of the Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway.

110 laps at Sonoma later, the sanctioning body is being showered with praise.

Why?

Because they showed restraint.

No one truly knows whether the caution at Michigan was warranted or not. Multiple drivers were reporting debris on-track before the yellow was thrown, but no debris was ever captured by the TV cameras on-site.

Regardless of that caution’s merit, NASCAR officials gave drivers and team owners what they were asking for on in Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350, letting the race stay green for the entirety of Stage 3.

There was contact. Multiple drivers spun. Boris Said and others made their way off-course, and in doing so littered the track with dirt and rocks upon their return to the racing surface. There were even reports of debris from Joe Gibbs Racing and others as the laps wound down.

However, in the end NASCAR elected to let the race stay green.

The resulting run to the finish may not have pleased everyone, courtesy of Kevin Harvick’s eight-second lead when the caution flag flew to end the race on the final lap. But the long green-flag stint was filled with varying tire strategies, battles throughout the field and, most notably, pure racing.

NASCAR’s made their name over the past few years with the creation of various gimmicks that have added a different appeal to their races. From playoff formats to stage races, the very terminology used to discuss the sport has changed drastically in the last 15 years.

Races have often come down to sprints of 20 laps or less, the equivalent of a street stock feature at the end of 500 miles. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it can be a tough pill to swallow at times for the purists that still passionately follow America’s top motorsport.

In many ways, Sunday’s run to the finish was for those fans as much as it was for the drivers, team owners and others frustrated by late cautions – debris or otherwise.

It’s unlikely that another race in the coming weeks will see such a long run to the end, whether the stint be shortened by crashes or other means. But for one week, NASCAR removed all doubt of a pure finish by allowing the field to showcase their skill and grind out a long green-flag run.

For that, the sanctioning body should be commended.

3) The Perfect Combination

Low speeds and good tires led to many great battles – and a fair share of contact. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

In many ways, Sonoma has become road course racing’s equivalent to a short track for the NASCAR brass, with an added layer of strategy thrown on for good measure.

With low speeds and multiple passing opportunities, the field often runs closer together on the tight, winding California circuit than they manage anywhere else, save perhaps for the restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway.

As a result, the 110-lap race at Sonoma plays out as one part technical race, and an equal part demolition derby.

Just look at the top six. Harvick’s race-winning No. 4 was predominantly clean, but teammate Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 Ford looked as though it’d been through a grueling day at Martinsville Speedway, not a road course – even after he somehow managed to avoid heavy damage in a spin through the track’s esses.

https://twitter.com/NASCAR/status/879497113058652160

Third-place finisher Brad Keselowski spent the majority of the day with heavy left-front damage. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 crossed the line in fifth with a caved front end, and Earnhardt’s No. 88 had been a part of two crashes en-route to his sixth-place result.

The cars were as beaten up and ugly as they come in the NASCAR tour, and that’s part of what made the race so beautiful.

The beauty in NASCAR’s trip to Sonoma doesn’t come just from the scenic California views – it also stems from the product on-track.

The race offers excitement in the form of varying strategies that constantly flip the field. The annual event has greater parity than any other track on the circuit, with no active driver holding more than two race wins. There are crashes aplenty, and typically the race is injected with late-race drama even without a slew of cautions.

In truth, Sonoma has provided a bit of everything in recent years.

A lot of the reasoning comes down to two key factors: aero (or lack thereof), and a great tire compound.

First, credit to Goodyear Racing. The tire they’ve supplied over the past few seasons in Sonoma has been nearly perfect.

The rubber used by the MENCS Sunday had significant falloff, allowing drivers like Keselowski who pitted late to rally their way through the field. The tires were also rare to suffer punctures, an issue that’s plagued Goodyear intermittently over the past decade.

Without the significant falloff seen throughout the weekend, many of the differing strategies seen at Sonoma might not have appeared. At the least, they would’ve been slightly altered.

However, while the tires were important, the lack of aerodynamic dependence was the key factor in Sonoma’s success.

Much like a short-track like Martinsville, the slow speeds of Sonoma prevent a large portion of the aerodynamic issues that the sport often faces at bigger tracks like Michigan or Pocono Raceway.

With the tight, winding corners of the road course, the Cup Series field is drawn tightly together, providing opportunities for close battles and, as seen on Sunday, contact.

Throw in the incentives of stage points and a playoff-clinching victory, prevalence of road-course specialists such as A.J. Allmendinger and Michael McDowell who see road courses as their best shot at a win and the pit strategy invoked by a track large enough to allow stops without losing a lap, and Sonoma becomes a rare oasis for NASCAR in the California desert, offering an entertaining show with each trip the tour makes to the facility.

Now, if only fans would continue to tune in.

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