Roger Diez: NASCAR makes stop at Sonoma
After a slow Father’s Day weekend, racing is back in gear. Formula One is in France at the beginning of a three-week stretch of races. The Verizon IndyCar series will race at Road America, at four miles the longest track on the schedule. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup makes its first road course appearance of the season at Sonoma, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series is on the oval at St. Louis, and the NHRA’s Mello Yello Drag Racing series visits Ohio for the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals.
It’s just one week after the Lemans 24 hour endurance race, where Toyota Hybrids finished 1-2. This weekend Formula 1 returns to French soil after a 10-year absence. It’s been an even longer absence from Circuit Paul Ricard (also known as Le Castellet); the last F1 race held there was in 1990. No active F1 driver has turned a wheel on that course, so the learning curve will be steep, and that should make for an interesting race.
In fact, it will be a weekend full of interesting races. The Verizon IndyCar series is at the long Road America track featuring a long uphill straight, fast sweepers, and tight corners, making it one of the more challenging tracks for the Indy Cars. It’s only the third race there for the series, with Scott Dixon victorious last season and Will Power in 2016. However, Sebastian Bourdais won a CART/Champ Car race at the track in 2007 and rookies Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman de Melo each won half of an Indy Lights doubleheader there last June.
Perhaps the most interesting race of the weekend will be the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup round on the road course at Sonoma. It’s geographically the closest NASCAR race to Northern Nevada, and it’s my favorite track on the circuit, my old home track.
When NASCAR first began racing there in 1989 after Riverside was closed, most of the top drivers hated it and considered it a “throwaway” race. That dynamic changed over the years as the Cup series became more competitive and every race counted toward the championship. Drivers attended road racing school and hired driving coaches like Boris Said and Ron Fellows, and now most of the top drivers love road course racing.
Kevin Harvick won at Sonoma last year, and I wouldn’t bet against him to take the checkered flag on Sunday. Six other active drivers have posted Sonoma wins — Kyle Busch in 2015 and 2008, his brother Kurt in 2011, Martin Truex Jr. in 2013, Clint Bowyer in 2012, Jimmie Johnson in 2010, and Kasey Kahne in 2009.
Harvick isn’t the only driver on that list with a hot hand in 2018. Kyle Busch and Truex have multiple wins so far, and Bowyer just scored his second 2018 victory, so he’s on a winner’s high. Johnson is the only Chevrolet driver in that mix, and his team has been struggling to come to grips with the new Camaro bodywork. But perhaps it will come right on the first road course of the season.
A.J. Allmendinger has won at Watkins Glen, but never Sonoma, although his road-racing prowess is unquestioned. Sonoma is also an impound race, with qualifying Saturday and the race on Sunday. No matter who ends up in victory lane, it’s going to be an interesting race.