It’s Day One of the 30th Annual Toyota/Save Mart’350′ – Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma Raceway, and it quickly heated up – literally and figuratively. The Friday weather forecast was for 94 degrees F with 2 mph breeze and 56 percent humidity. It’s a High Fire Danger Day. This weekend the track is honoring Fire Survivors, First Responders, and Home Town Heroes from last October’s devastating North Bay fires and the ongoing rebuilding efforts – Sonoma Rising.
The Friday schedule called for practice for the two NASCAR races this weekend – Cup and K&N Pro Series West Carneros 200 Race. Cup had two sessions, sandwiching the K&N practice. Cup has thirty-eight drivers.
K&N has 27 drivers including five Cup drivers – Daniel Suarez/No.54 Arris Toyota; Erik Jones/No.20 DeWalt Toyota; Alex Bowman/No.24 Axalta/Nationwide; William Byron/No.27 Liberty Chevrolet; and Aric Almirola/No.41 DenBeste Water Solutions Ford. Since 2011, only two West winners at Sonoma were non-Cup drivers – David Mayhew/No.17 MMI Services/Madoram Chevrolet in 2015 and Derek Thorn/No.6 Sunrise Ford/Eiback Spring/Lucas Oil Ford in 2013. Both are running this weekend.
In the paddock, in preparation, the 39 Cup cars were busy going through the Tech lines, while selected drivers were fulfilling media obligations before donning drivers suits. Above, catching everyone off-guard, were two F-15’s from Washington, loudly practicing for Sunday’s Air Show as part of the pre-race festivities.
It was 84 degrees F for the start of Cup practice, and 91 degrees F at the end – 75 minutes later. Thirty-nine drivers were on the original Entry List, and thirty-eight Friday. Missing was Reed Sorenson/No.107 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet. In the past 13 races, there have been 11 different winners, and in all 29 races, there have been 19 different winners. Jeff Gordon won five times and Tony Stewart won three times.
This weekend for Cup, there are 19 Chevrolets, 13 Fords and seven Toyotas. For K&N, the breakdown is 11 for Chevrolet, nine for Toyota, and seven for Toyota.
Clint Bowyer/No.14 One Cure Ford led early and long – the only leader. His fastest lap was 93.590 mph. Second through fifth were Ryan Blaney/No.12 PPG Ford, Joey Logano/No.22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, Jamie McMurray/No.1 Cessna Chevrolet, and Daniel Suarez/No.19 STANLEY Toyota. The top Rookie was William Byron/No.23 Liberty University Chevrolet, in 22nd place.
Bowyer won the last Cup race at Michigan and is feeling good this weekend. His strategy is to “Just to get settled in and comfortable on the race track and get your car comfortable. That is the biggest thing. This race track presents all kinds of challenges. The forward bite issues and the high speed section and you have to have good aero grip through the high speed section. It is very technical up through the hill. It is the short track of road racing. And who am I to say that? I am not a road racer and haven’t really been on anything other than these two that we race on. It has always felt like a little bullring short track somewhere in the midwest. It just happens to be that you go right and shift gears all at the same time.”
Some Cup drivers stretched their limits, including Erik Jones/No.20 DeWalt Toyota, and Bubba Wallace/No.43 World Wide Technology Chevrolet, but no worries.
Points-leader Kyle Busch/No.18 M&M Caramels Toyota ran 13th at best and ended up 18th. Last year’s race winner, Kevin Harvick/No.4 Mobil 1 Ford ran as high as fifth, but finished 12th. Despite being a California native and racing many times at Sonoma, last year was the first time Harvick won at the elevated road course. He cleaned up that weekend, also winning the K&N race.
Half-way through the first practice, a full-course caution for track inspection interrupted the session. Cody Ware/No.37 52 SBC Contractors Chevrolet lost a brake duct.
The Sonoma race often attracts road racers from other series, sometimes labeled ‘road course ringers.’ This weekend Tomy Drisi from Trans-Am and Chris Cook are such this weekend. Drisi is racing No.00 Go Share Chevrolet for StarCom Racing, while Cook, Bondurant driving instructor, is again racing for Rick Ware Racing in No.51 Shockwave Chevrolet. Earlier this month Cook coached Rookie K&N driver, Hailie Deegan/No.19 Mobil 1/NAPA Power Premium Plus Toyota.
Cook ran 36th, and Drisi was 38th. Rookie Deegan was 14th of 27 K&N drivers.
Spotters are mandated for all NASCAR races, and at Sonoma, the favorite spot is up above Turn Two by the Water Towers. Other positions are on top of the Media Center overlooking Turn 12, and the Drag Tower near the Pit Lane entrance. No driver can go on course until his spotter has checked in at the Spotter Stand. When a NASCAR team enters a race, they are required to have/name three things – Driver, Crew Chief and Spotter.
One well-known road racers who has perhaps more laps on Sonoma Raceway than all the drivers is this weekend’s Pace Car Driver – Scott Pruett. The local native cut his teeth at the course in all of its many configurations, starting with SCCA FF and FA. After 50 years of racing – the most decorated road racer of the modern era, he retired after this year’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. In between he raced in sports cars, GT cars, Indycars, stock cars, IROC, and Aussie V8’s. He also has written childen’s books about racing with his wife, Judy, and grows award-winning wine.
Will Rodgers/No.7 Kelly & Assoc. Insurance Group Ford led the K&N practice in 91 degree heatq. Second through fifth were Suarez, Bowman, Byron, and David Mayhew. Current points leader, Thorn, finished 12th.
Qualifying for the Carneros 200 Race is 10:15am PT Saturday, with the race at 1:30pm PT. Cup Qualifying for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 is 11:45am PT Saturday morning.