NASCAR drivers finally accept Sonoma challenge

SONOMA, Calif. — William Byron recently got instruction on the finer points of road racing from two coaches. He also used a simulator, did countless hours of study and drove Saturday in the K&N Pro Series race to prepare for his first NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma Raceway.

“I feel like I’ve made some good progress on the road courses this year,” Byron said after finishing third in the K&N race.

The 20-year-old rookie still realizes that nothing substitutes for experience on the winding turns and changing elevation of this unique track. Even then, it’s awfully difficult for any oval-centric driver to sustain any career success in a race that hasn’t had a repeat winner since 2000.

Byron is a quick study, though: He qualified in eighth in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on Saturday, putting himself in position to be a player Sunday in a race that nearly anybody can win.

“(On Friday) I really started getting my rhythm of what I needed to do better,” Byron said. “I kind of put that all together (Saturday) to try to get where we need to be. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it. It was cool.”

Sonoma is a highly enjoyable stop on the Cup circuit for most of the drivers, but it’s even more fun for their families and sponsors, who flock to Northern California for a pleasant weekend. The area’s gracious vibe contrasts sharply with the difficult racing for drivers on a circuit with only three non-oval courses on its schedule.

“These are the types of events where, honestly, nobody cares about the race except us,” Kevin Harvick said. “Everybody has a hell of a time when they come to Sonoma, because they can bring their wife, bring their friends, and the sponsors all come and we have big events. It could be the best race you’ve ever seen at Sonoma or the worst race, but everybody is going to have a great time.”

Byron isn’t the only driver doing extra preparation for those sharp turns, though. Aric Almirola has struggled mightily on road courses throughout his career, and he never finished better than 14th in six career starts at Sonoma. He has rededicated himself to learning the skill for Stewart-Haas Racing.

“Road racing was never something that I looked forward to,” said Almirola, who qualified in 24th on Saturday. “Always something I just marked on my calendar that I had to go do, and I just wanted to minimize risk. This year, I don’t want to be a weak link. I put a tremendous amount of work in the simulator. I wanted to enter this race to get laps and be more prepared.”

Sonoma hasn’t had a repeat winner since Jeff Gordon — a native of nearby Vallejo — won three straight from 1998-2000. The Cup race has had nine different winners in the last nine years alone, with Harvick claiming it last year.