Always one of the highlights of the racing season, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the beautiful Sonoma wine country for the 25th consecutive year with the Toyota/Save Mart 350 this weekend, as the best stock car drivers in the world take on the twisting 10-turn, 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway road course. The 16th stop on the 36 race 2013 schedule, Sonoma is the first of only two road course races (along with Watkins Glen) and it marks the final west coast appearance of the series until it returns in November to Phoenix International Raceway.
Vallejo native Jeff Gordon remains the undisputed king of Sonoma, with five victories (1998-2000, ‘04, ‘06), five pole positions (1998-99, ‘01, ‘04, and ‘05) and 16 top 10s in 20 starts. Gordon, who holds the record for the most road course victories at nine, can’t wait to try out the Generation 6 car on a road course for the first time in competition.
"The new car is something we've never raced at Sonoma," said Gordon. "We ran pretty decent in the older generation car here last year, and we feel pretty confident we can tune the #24 Chevrolet SS this weekend."
Gordon recently tested the new car at Road Atlanta, but he doesn’t feel that it will be of too much value this weekend.
"I don't think we have ever been able to find one track that simulates Sonoma the way we feel like we need one to," said Gordon. "It's been nearly a year since we raced on a road course, so that test was just getting back on one — shifting, down-shifting, left turns, right turns. Sort of general testing.”
One major change Gordon and the rest of the field will face this year is a brand new qualifying format.
This year drivers will hit the track for two practice sessions on Great Clips Fast Friday, the second of which will arrange the drivers based on practice times. This order will establish groups for qualifying on Saturday morning. Each group will be given a session on track to produce their best lap time, with the pole-sitter battling for the top spot among the drivers in the quickest group.
"I'm really anxious to try it out to see how it works," said Gordon. "In the past, we've seen drivers run a good lap in practice and then struggle to back it up in qualifying. Now, we're going to have as much time as we need to get the car ready for that lap."
Unfortunately, missing behind the wheel of his race car this weekend will be Manteca native Scott Speed, driver of the #95 Leavine Family Racing Ford.
The team had planned to compete at Sonoma and Watkins Glen road courses this season as part of a limited schedule, but a pending sponsorship deal for eight races fell through and as a result the single-car organization will not make the cross-country trip.
Speed is expected to be back in action for the July 6 event at Daytona.
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series West returns to Sonoma as part of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 weekend with a main event today for the seventh stop on the 16-race West Series schedule.
One driver who desperately wants to take the checkers on is Eric Holmes of Escalon. Holmes has accumulated three championships and 17 victories on ten different track racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, but his best finish at Sonoma was a second place in 2008.
“I love this track,” said Holmes. “Sonoma Raceway is like a home track to us. This race has always been No.1 on my list to win and I have come close but have yet to get it done. I would have to say that the biggest disappointment I have is not winning here.”
Last year Holmes came tantalizingly close to sipping the wine from the winner’s goblet in victory circle after running out front when he encountered engine trouble late in the race.
“Last year was probably the most disappointing,” the 38-year-old said. “I really thought we had that race won. We had a 14-second lead and cruising and had an engine problem. That was a bummer there.”
Holmes will take a slightly different perspective into this year’s race which he hopes will work to his advantage.
“I’m looking forward to this year because I’m not in a championship battle,” said Holmes, who is only running a partial schedule in the Bill McAnally #16 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota only this season. “It seems like every year we’ve had to be a little conservative, because there are so many points to lose at that race. This year we can go for the win and not worry about the points. I’m really looking forward to that.”
Holmes is hoping that history will finally be on his side when he takes the green flag to start the 64-lap Carneros “200” today.
“I think this is the 25th year they’ve had that race,” Holmes said of the big NASCAR weekend at Sonoma. “I’ve been there every year as a fan or racing. It’s something I want to win. Hopefully, we can accomplish that this time.”
Call 800-870-RACE (7223) or visit www.racesonoma.com for special ticket deals and more information on this weekend’s activities. Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 can be seen live on TNT beginning at 11 AM.
Locally, Atwater’s Jason Aguirre took advantage of a midrace restart to take the victory over Manteca’s Chad Holman in last Saturday’s Super Stock main at Stockton 99 Speedway. Later that evening Matt Scott of Pine Grove remained undefeated in the Late Models by finishing ahead of second generation driver Kyle Gottula of Modesto and Stanislov Osterlund of Los Gatos.
The ¼ mile Stockton Speedway will not be back in action until July 6 with the second round of the Tri-Holiday Series which will feature "NASCAR Whelen All-American Series" Western Late Models, Modifieds, Super Stocks, Pure Stocks, and Basically-4-Cylinders plus Fireworks Spectacular!
The Spears Southwest Tour will be at the Madera Speedway for the Firecracker 150 on June 29.