There will be plenty of old-fashioned hard nose rubbing and grinding when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the beautiful Northern California wine country for 24th consecutive year with the Toyota/Save Mart 350 this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.
When the Cup race first came to Sonoma you could count the potential winners on one hand, but the drivers have adapted their skills and equipment to the twisting 10-turn, 1.99-mile road course, which along with Watkins Glen, is one of just two road course events on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule. This is evident as there have been seven different winners in the last seven races at Sonoma.
Looking to become the eighth is Manteca native Scott Speed, driver of the Leavine Family Racing's No. 95 Ford Fusion.
The race was not originally on the selective race schedule for the team, but Speed quickly convinced the team of the benefits of racing in Sonoma.
"The Sonoma Raceway is my home track," Speed said, who now resides with his wife Amanda and 1-year-old daughter Juliet in Mt Holly, N.C., the heart of stock car country. "I have raced just about everything there. When we finally settled on our part-time schedule, I circled this race because I felt like it was where we would get our strongest finish."
Speed's resume made a very persuasive case in favor of adding the two road courses. He raced in just about anything and everything that has four wheels at Sonoma including Karts, Formula Russell, Barber formula Dodge and Star Mazda. He also won the Red Bull Driver Search there, which earned him a ride in British Formula Three and eventually led him to the pinnacle of road racing - driving in Formula One during 2006 and 2007.
"I raced my first open-wheel race at Sonoma," Speed said. "We need special cars (in Sprint Cup) on the road course too, but more things are in the driver's control. We have much better odds on the road courses."
A road course car requires a completely different car from the ones used on ovals because the car must be adept in making both left and right turns. It also has a different braking system, amongst other equipment and technology designed specifically for road courses.
"You just don't take a regular car to a road course," explained Speed's crew chief Wally Rogers. "It takes a special car, and when it comes to road courses, Scott is a special driver. That makes all the work worthwhile. We've all been looking forward to this weekend for a long time."
The Leavine team has had limited success so far in 2012, scoring only 12 points in five starts.
"Things just keep breaking on the car. We have really been unlucky because it's not stuff you could have really done any different," explained Speed. "We qualified 25th and we were running well in our last start at Dover and then we got caught up in an accident."
Speed hopes to turn things around this weekend at Sonoma where he has two previous starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, with a career-best 18th-place finish in 2010 while racing for Red Bull Racing.
"A top 15 would be great finish for us. I think we have the equipment to do it here. Our goal is to qualify well, stay out of trouble and finish a race for a change," he said before adding, "And it also helps to have a home track advantage."
It will also be a big weekend for Escalon's Eric Holmes, driver of the Bill McAnally Racing #20 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota Camry in today's NASCAR K&N West Series Championship Pick-n-Pull/Racing to Stop Hunger "200" at Sonoma Raceway. Although Holmes has recorded five top-five finishes in recent trips to Sonoma, a victory in the wine country has eluded the three-time West Series champion.
"Sonoma Raceway is still my biggest race each year," said Holmes. "I love this track. Many of our friends and family come out to watch this race with this being like a home track to us. This race has always been No.1 on my list to win and each year I have come close but have yet to win. This year we are pulling out all the stops."
Sonoma is an especially tough race since it always brings out a huge field of entries including many one off drivers who are not concerned with scoring points for the season championship, just winning.
"It's hard to pass a good car with a good driver at this track'" said Holmes. "I plan on running up front and will be focused on bringing bring home the win."
Holmes is currently fifth in the 2012 NASCAR K&N West Series Championship chase trailing Dylan Kwasniewski of Las Vegas by 47 points with eight races left of the season.
Tony LaRussa, a four time Manager of the Year with 2,278 career victories as a manager, has been named Grand Marshal of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series weekend. LaRussa, who still calls the Bay Area home, posted three World Series victories during his 33-year managerial career, including one with the Oakland Athletics (1989) and two with the St. Louis Cardinals, most recently in 2011.
Call 800-870-RACE (7223) or visit www.racesonoma.com/nascar for special ticket deals and more information on this weekend's events. Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 can be seen live on TNT beginning at 11 a.m.