Old Sonoma Raceway meets NASCAR’s new cup car

June 6, 2021: During the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, CA (HHP/Jim Fluharty)

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In recent years, Hendrick Motorsports has been the biggest name in NASCAR’s street racing game.

In 2021 alone, the organization accumulated five road course wins over Chase Elliott (two) and Kyle Larson (three).

Larson’s victories – at Sonoma Raceway, Watkins Glen International and the Charlotte Roval – marked the first time a Cup driver had three wins on the road in a single season (the Cup Series had no more than two races open until 2018 the schedule). .

However, Hendrick has been the biggest name on the street circuit for the past 35 years in the NASCAR Cup Series.

En route to Sunday’s event at Sonoma Raceway, the Toyota/Save Mart 350, Hendrick has won 25 road races in the Cup Series. Since the organization’s inaugural season in 1984, HMS has won 29% of all races on the Cup’s road circuits (25 out of 86). The next two teams in this statistic have combined just 21 wins.

Larson, the Defending Cup champion, will look to rekindle some of his Championship mojo at the track closest to his hometown of Elk Grove, California.

The driver of the #5 Chevrolet enters Sonoma with just one win in 15 races. When the 2021 series arrived in Sonoma, Larson had two of his later 10 wins and four consecutive top-two finishes.

Larson would start from his fourth straight Sonoma pole, lead 57 laps and earn his first career victory on a street course.

But the 2022 Sonoma isn’t the 2021 Sonoma. The same goes for the cars everyone will drive.

Sonoma will be the second street race for the next-gen car after it debuted at the Circuit of the Americas in April.

“It was cool to get my first win at my home track last year,” Larson said in a press release. “But that was with last year’s car and on the longer route.”

After two seasons of racing at the track’s original 2.52-mile stretch, which included the “Carousel,” Sonoma has returned to the 1.99-mile, 11-turn layout. These include the “Slide”, a section of track with two right-handers – Turn 4 and Turn 7 – which creates more potential overtaking opportunities.

“The track layout will be a different element compared to the last couple of rides we’ve done there,” said Cliff Daniels, Larson’s crew chief, in a media release. “We place a little more emphasis on right-handers because so much emphasis has been placed on the carousel and the car’s left-hander ability – and now we don’t drive that part of the track anymore. It’s just going to be different.”

Sunday’s race will consist of 110 laps. The first stage ends in lap 25 and the second stage in lap 55.

How the tires with an 18 inch tread wear over the course of a run will likely affect pit strategy and competition.

“When I won here in 2011, the tires ran the full 30 laps, which corresponds to about the same consumption,” said Kurt Busch on Thursday. “Now the tires wear out a lot quicker and it seems your strategy is split in half. Really you only do 15 laps now because the tires are so sticky and rubbery and sticky but then how badly they fall off. You don’t necessarily run the race backwards like we used to (when you) pitted as fast as you could to make it on fuel. There might be some teams that choose to go in that direction.

Sonoma is a very technical track with sharp turns and lots of elevation changes.

What will it be like for the next-gen car to navigate “The Chute” along with the iconic hairpin at Turn 11?

During the 2021 Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. (HHP/Jim Fluharty)

“I think (the chute will) suit our cars better,” said Kevin Harvick, comparing it to the “Carousel,” which was a long, sweeping left turn.

“You have to sneak back in (exit Turn 4) just because the wall comes out all the way to the circuit,” said Harvick. “It’s going to be interesting to see how our cars navigate the curb and all the things that hit the ground as we cross that curb.”

Turn 11 is the biggest braking zone on the track after a high-speed section leading into it.

“It’s a fairly easy corner in terms of braking and that’s really what matters – just who can brake hardest there and be able to control the car and still close the bottom of the corner reach,” said Harvick.

Much care was taken to ensure that the next-generation car was specifically designed for street courses and is heavily oriented towards modern sports cars.

This year’s race at COTA, after an uneventful first stage, turned into one of the more dramatic road races in recent memory, with Ross Chastain, AJ Allmendinger and Alex Bowman battling for the final lap win, which went to Chastain.

“This car is faster on the street courses because it has more grip,” said 2015 Sonoma winner Kyle Busch in a media release. “It’s a more centrally built race car, which means it’s not just built for left-hand traffic. I think the race should be competitive. All cars are the same, right? So it should become more competitive. It’s just who hits who that determines whether we look like the local go-kart track or like pros.”


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