Uncertainty, opportunity await Cup Series drivers at “new” Sonoma

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

Sonoma Raceway, which sits atop the golden rolling hills of Northern California’s Wine Country, has been a staple on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit dating back to 1989. The 1.99-mile track is the second-longest tenured road course in the sport, and has consistently produced wildly compelling races by virtue of its weathered surface.

When NASCAR’s premier series makes it out to NorCal for the Toyota / Save Mart 350 on June 9 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox), they’ll essentially be going to a brand-new facility, following the first repave in 23 years at Sonoma.

Outside of three drivers who participated in a two-day tire test back in March, there’s a widespread abundance of uncertainty going in. Teams have a general idea for what to anticipate in some areas, courtesy of shared information between manufacturers and prior history of repaves, but this race should have a vastly different complexion from what’s standard at Sonoma.

The good news is with unpredictability comes opportunity for drivers who are in need of a trip to victory lane, whether it be points related or another internally motivated situation.

In the case of Chase Elliott, he isn’t necessarily in need of a win after locking into the playoffs with his victory at Texas Motor Speedway. Where the 2020 champ’s inspiration factors in is the desire to reclaim the crown of NASCAR’s modern-day road course king.

Elliott already established himself as one of the greatest in NASCAR on road courses after his reign from 2018 to 2021 spawned seven victories and put him third on the all-time wins list behind Hall of Famers Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.

However, since the inception of the Next Gen car, Elliott has been held winless on the tracks he was once automatic at. Instead, Tyler Reddick leads the series with three going back to 2022.

Although winless in the current car on road courses, Elliott still scored four top-10s (three top-fives) in five starts last season – a year in which he was battling through injury. 

While Sonoma is one of the road courses Elliott has yet to win in the Cup Series, he has seen sustained success at the 1.99-mile track. Going into this weekend’s race, he’s placed top-five in his last three starts, with laps led over his last four. 

Even with proven results and prowess on road courses, Elliott is aware it will take time to adapt to the freshly paved race track, which he and his competition will get in the form of a 50-minute practice session.

“I would like to think we could go out there and have a shot to win,” Elliott said. “Basically a new track for all of us except for whatever the three drivers were that got to test.

“Gonna take a little time [to adapt]. We do get an extra practice on Friday, which is nice, especially for a repave. I feel like that’s probably the only time it’s necessary. Outside of that, I think our normal allotment is plenty so I think that is warranted. Give us a few extra laps and we’ll go to work.”

Someone who’s come close to winning in Wine Country – and is in desperate need of one right now – is two-time champion Joey Logano.

After entering last week’s race at Gateway 17th in the standings, Logano managed to score his second top-five finish of the season, but still sits 14 points below the cutoff with 11 races until the playoffs. At Sonoma, the Team Penske driver has finished as high as third, twice – including in 2023.

With 15 starts at the California road course, Logano got accustomed to the abrasive surface, which would shred tires, thus promoting run management and a solid strategy. Going into this weekend, he knows Sonoma is going to race almost like a completely new track.

“Sonoma’s going to be so different from what it’s been in the past,” Logano said. “You’re talking about a track that used to chew up tires. The lines are going to be different because of it (and) the setups are going to be way different. You repave a race track, there’s not going to be tire wear, there’s not going to be fall-off, it’s going to last forever. 

“It’s going to be way more physically demanding inside the car, because you’re going to push really, really hard the whole run. Whereas before, you’d back it down a notch, you’d save your tires, you’d focus on the long-run – It’s not going to have that anymore. It’s hammer city again.”

Chris Buescher, 10 points above the cutoff, has asserted himself as one of the most consistent frontrunners on road courses in the Next-Gen era. 

After the first race in the current car back in 2022, Buescher ripped off seven consecutive top-10s on road courses, now with 10 total through 12 starts. On top of his execution on those specific tracks, the RFK Racing driver has finished runner-up twice already this season.

Buescher echoed similar sentiments to Logano in reference to tire wear and strategies at Sonoma, or the presumed lack thereof. He is, however, thrilled to weather the unknowns with help from Australian Supercars star Cam Waters running a third entry for RFK Racing and making his Cup debut for the Stage 60 program.  

“Part of what made Sonoma so unique from any (road course) was the lack of grip and tire fall off there,” Buescher said. “That’ll be incredibly different this go-around. It certainly feels like it can take some of those strategy calls out of it. We’ll see how that works, but nonetheless we’ll have the speed in our RFK Mustangs to be in a good spot no matter what comes out of it.”

Finally, to state the obvious, with a repave comes added speed, which Ross Chastain confirmed there will be plenty of for this weekend’s Toyota / Save Mart 350. Serving as one of the three drivers (as well as Martin Truex Jr. and Josh Berry) to participate in the tire test at Sonoma in March, he noted the track record was broken multiple times over the two-day span. 

Eleventh, in the standings, Chastain is in need of a strong run at Sonoma, and it appears Trackhouse Racing may have an advantage over every other team for the second road course event of the season.

In addition to getting laps on the new surface, Chastain already has a road course win in the Next Gen car. As does his teammate Daniel Suarez, who won at Sonoma in 2022, and Shane van Gisbergen, who won the most recent NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway and the inaugural Cup race on the Chicago Street Course last year.

As an added bonus, patchwork was recently done to Sonoma in April, due to deterioration in Turn 11, and van Gisbergen was the only driver to get seat time via a Chevrolet Wheel Force test. 

Combining the experience, talent and knowledge between the three Trackhousee drivers for this weekend, it may be wise for other teams to keep an eye on that stable to develop an understanding for how to approach Sonoma.

“We were around three seconds faster than the track record,” Chastain recollected. “Now, they have repaved several spots and patched several spots since I’ve been there. SVG went recently with the Wheel Force car and he had different feedback in some corners from patches and things they repaved. When we were there, it was all one coat, and then right after we left stuff started changing. They’ve been making it right for us when we go back.”

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