Right Turn Lane: NASCAR Next Gen Car Hits Sonoma Road Course | Sports news

By GREG BEACHAM, AP sportswriter

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — NASCAR Cup Series drivers face challenges much tougher than a right-hander turn on Sunday in their final race before the short mid-season hiatus.

They must figure out how to negotiate the normal elevation changes of Sonoma Raceway, along with returning to the old wine country road layout – and they’re doing it all in the unfamiliar next-gen car. Many drivers said on Saturday they were uncomfortable in the new car at the old track and everyone is hoping it will lead to exciting racing.

“There’s just a lot more unknowns and you don’t have a lot of time to adjust,” said Michael McDowell. “It’s narrow and twisty, so it’s easy to get off track here. This is the short-distance version of a street circuit, so it’s tough.”

Mastering the road circuit is more important than ever in the Cup Series, which has six such circuits on its schedule this season. But Sonoma is only the second street circuit of the season, meaning teams are still trying to understand the details of the new car’s handling and setup for the challenges of the broader races presented at those circuits.

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And they didn’t learn much useful from last season’s race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which was the first next-gen experience on a street circuit.

“For a street course, it’s really tight and tight,” Chase Briscoe said of Sonoma Raceway. “Completely different from COTA. Most of the guys have raced here before… but the cars are so different now that it’s hard to compare apples to apples. I’m looking forward to running this layout because it’s the course I saw as a kid.”

Defending champion and five-time pole sitter Kyle Larson claimed he didn’t notice much of a difference between the road course challenges of COTA and Sonoma, other than deeper braking zones. Martin Truex Jr. was among several drivers concerned about the slickness of the track and the challenges of preparing the car for both left and right turns.

“I think the new car changes everything (on the street circuit),” said Truex, who won on both course layouts at Sonoma. “The track has so much to say about how you can make passes and how much you can overtake. … You have to work hard to set up your car so that it turns left and right equally.”

Sonoma Raceway is fully open for the first time since before the coronavirus pandemic, and Northern California fans are packing up a renovated track that welcomes the return of a familiar layout.

The course harks back to the slide used from 1998 to 2018 before Sonoma went with the longer carousel setup in its last two editions. Briscoe is among those riders who have yet to race a Cup Series with the Chute configuration.

“Personally, I enjoyed the carousel,” Larson said. “It added a left-handed corner for me that feels more normal. … I don’t know why I changed it again. Maybe it’s just a better view for the fans or something. But it doesn’t matter a whole lot. We know what to expect because we’ve been racing on this layout for a long time. It should be fine.”

Ross Chastain caught up with Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott to sort out their differences after their eventful race at Gateway last week.

Chastain tapped Hamlin into the barriers mid-race from behind, and later sent Elliott sideways with another tap from behind when he tried to split two cars in a three-wide situation.

While Chastain felt remorse for his recklessness, Hamlin publicly vowed that the 29-year-old Trackhouse Racing driver will exact revenge.

“We’re big boys, and they can handle it however they see fit,” Chastain said Saturday. “And I will try to get better. … I ditched social media this week, and that was good. I should probably do that more often. We all should.”

None of the three drivers shared many details of their conversations, but Elliott seemed more publicly forgiving than Hamlin.

“I tried talking to him like I wanted someone to talk to me,” Elliott said, noting that Chastain had reached out to him first. “He may or may not accept my opinion, and I’m fine with that.”

Elliott is unsurprisingly FanDuel Sportbook’s 11-to-2 favorite in Sonoma given his acumen on street courses. Larson is right behind him at 13-2 on the track closest to his hometown in the Sacramento suburbs, while Truex is trailing at 9-1.

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