Sonoma provides unique experience

Auto Racing

SONOMA, Calif. — The Cup Series drivers had a rare break from their grinding schedule last week, and they’re returning to competition at a NASCAR stop that sometimes feels like a vacation.

Most drivers have spent the week enjoying wine tasting sessions and extravagant meals at the wineries and restaurants nestled in Northern California’s beautiful rolling hills. They’re sleeping in luxury hotels instead of their usual luxury motor homes. Across the paddock, everybody seems to be in a good mood.

“Well, wait until Sunday,” points leader Joey Logano said with a smirk.

All that comfort and relaxation will be forgotten when the season resumes on a track with a high degree of difficulty and potential for frustration. The first road course race of the season already challenges drivers with its elevation changes, and it got even trickier with a new layout this weekend: Sonoma is celebrating its 50th anniversary by reincorporating “The Carousel,” a wicked elevation-changing turn, for the first time in a NASCAR race since 1997.

An element of the unknown is usually a boost to entertainment value in motor sports, and the drivers are as curious as everybody else to see what will happen when the green flag drops. Most drivers are excited about it, even after spending the past two days furiously trying to figure out the best way to handle the Carousel — and whether they can go two-wide and pass in that stretch.

“It’s obviously more turns now, and that makes it more likely we’ll get a timely caution to shake up the race,” Clint Bowyer said. “But nobody really knows what it will mean.”

Yet nobody will be surprised if the season’s best drivers to date have more success in Sonoma.

Kyle Busch has already won four times this year, while Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski have three victories apiece. Truex is the defending champion at Sonoma, and Busch — his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate — has won twice here.

“It’s certainly interesting to have the new layout,” Busch said. “This place is always a challenge to pass at, and now I feel like there’s only two passing corners now, where before there might have been more.”

Larson earns pole

Not even a change in the course layout could halt Kyle Larson’s qualifying dominance on his home track.

Larson won the NASCAR Cup Series pole at Sonoma Raceway for the third consecutive year on Saturday, easily navigating the return of the Carousel turn to the wine country course.

Larson reached an average lap speed of 95.712 mph in his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet to earn his first pole of the season. William Byron was second for Hendrick Motorsports, barely behind Larson at 95.669 mph, making an all-Chevy front row Sunday.

“In the Carousel, I think I gave up a little speed, but I feel like I made up some time in other areas, too,” Larson said. “It’s cool to get a third pole at my home track.”

Larson sees a simple reason for his excellence in qualifying, and it isn’t his familiarity with Sonoma: “I think our cars are just quick for short-run stuff. It just fits my style a little bit. You can be really aggressive for a lap.”

Larson was fastest in practice Friday, and he set the track qualifying record in the opening round. He kept it up to win his eighth career pole, excelling again at Sonoma despite the addition of the Carousel turn, which hasn’t featured in a NASCAR race at Sonoma since 1997 — when Larson was 4 years old.

The Sacramento-area native won the pole at Sonoma in each of the past two seasons, yet has never finished better than 12th in five previous drives on the twisting road course. Larson tied the pole record of Ricky Rudd, who won it three straight times at Sonoma from 1990-92.

“I guess the trend with my three poles is winning a pole and then struggling in the race,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have something different for tomorrow.”

Larson could use the boost, too: Although he won the All-Star Race in Concord last month, he hasn’t won a race that was worth points since September 2017 — not even with eight top-10 starts this season.

Joey Logano was third, with Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez rounding out the top five.

More things to know from Sonoma:

Track evolution

The Carousel addition has forced the drivers to learn on the fly, but NASCAR is improvising as well. After drivers repeatedly scattered dirt across the track while running wide on Turn 5 during practice Friday, NASCAR worked overnight to add an asphalt curb where the dirt had been. “I’m so glad they made that adjustment,” Ty Dillon said. “I’m not going to run on it (in qualifying), but I think people will use it a lot tomorrow.”

Golden chance

California natives Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick haven’t won yet this season, but they’ve got reason to be optimistic. Harvick won at Sonoma in 2017 and has four top-10 finishes here in his last five starts. Johnson hasn’t won anywhere in more than two years, but the seven-time champ starts 11th today at the track where he won in 2010.

Boogity bye

For those watching at home, the Fox telecast is likely to be a lengthy farewell to Darrell Waltrip, who is retiring from his commentary job after the race. The Hall of Fame driver has been involved in NASCAR since 1972, and he has been a prominent broadcaster since 2001, becoming a fixture in the sport’s public perception.

Who’s in

Six of the top 12 qualifiers are in Chevys, albeit just three of the top nine. Hendrick got all four of its drivers into the final round, with Jimmie Johnson qualifying 11th and Alex Bowman in 12th.

Who’s out

Kevin Harvick, who finished second at Sonoma last year, qualified in 23rd. Brad Keselowski was 22nd, and Kurt Busch came in 16th.

What to expect

Kyle Busch qualified in seventh and defending champion Martin Truex Jr. was eighth, doing little to discourage the belief they’ll be in contention for the win today. Busch has won twice at Sonoma, and has won four races this season.

Hot streak

Ganassi has won five of the last seven poles at Sonoma. Logano has started in the top five in 12 of 16 races this season.

In the garage

The drivers seemed unbothered by the Carousel layout, showing they’ve already figured out good strategies for dealing with the additional turns. That could all change under actual racing conditions, according to Larson and others. Larson doesn’t think the Carousel will cause much trouble for anyone, and he also doesn’t think it will facilitate more passing.