Track Talk: A Preview of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway

After 15 races in the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, it’s about time to break the streak of ovals on the schedule with a date on the 1.99 mile road course known as Sonoma Raceway.  Known for its picturesque scenery that would harken more towards being a novelist or a vineyard owner, this track has been a staple of the stock car circuit since 1989, and that’s the best association with 1989, not Taylor Swift’s album.  If you can shake that one off, well you’re likely the kind to enjoy the twists and turns of this track in which terms like short pitting, heel and toe method, and the Chute will get often mentioned as much as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide commercial airing during the TV breaks.

While there’s only two road course races in the schedule and these races do not dictate who wins the championship, it’s important to note that this event through Richmond in the fall can punch a driver and team’s ticket into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.  For Jeff Gordon, it’s an emotional last start at his hometown track where he’s won five times (1998-’00, ’04, and ’06) and for AJ Allmendinger, it’s a homecoming of sorts in which he can showcase his talents in grand fashion as he’ll start from the pole position.  As for the rest of the field, a majority of them are just looking to bring home a decent finish with a car in one piece.

This weekend, we’re going a lot closer to the action with today’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.  Kim Melton, a contributor to TPF with our NASCAR coverage, will be on-site to provide live tweets and photos from the track, while we have NASCAR racer Patrick Staropoli joining us to provide his take on the latest storylines and with the race.  Joining us as usual on Track Talk alongside Kim and Patrick are Ashley HobbsAshley HullCourtney Clement, and Jessica Bushee.  We’re trading in our oval racing mindset for some road course knowledge and experience, as DW would say in his Jake Elder accent, so let’s get to this weekend’s Trending Topics by yours truly (by virtue of going with Kurt Busch at Michigan, the winner two weeks ago) and let’s talk Sonoma right now!

Trending Topics by Rob Tiongson

Question 1

A naked racecar - how your innocent eyes will feel wrong after that!

A naked racecar – how your innocent eyes will feel wrong after that!

NASCAR recently announced a specific rules package for the race at Kentucky with a shorter spoiler to 3.5 inches, reducing the radiator pan to 25 inches, and limiting the overhang on the splitter to 1.75 inches.  While we have yet to see what this will do for the drivers on the track, is this a sign that NASCAR’s going in the right direction in terms of catering to a more competitive series with each track type?

Hobbs :  New rules blah blah blah will give us better racing blah blah blah BLAH!!!!! How many times has NASCAR done this and everyone, drivers included, do not agree? NASCAR has no idea what the drivers really want with their cars; sure, not every driver will agree on the packages, but most will. Until I see NASCAR listen to the drivers and put together a package that they approve of, the blah blah blah will actually mean something.  One race is NOT enough to figure it all out. This is where testing needs to come back.

Melton :  I honestly don’t know anymore. There have been so many changes to NASCAR recently, it is hard to even keep up with them all. While I understand that they want to keep things competitive, changing so many things is really starting to be a “turn off” for the fans, and I am concerned about what it will do to the sport. I can’t really comment much on it since I have yet to see what it will do for the drivers, but I don’t think we will see a shift in those who have already won a race. I think the drivers who have already won a race, especially multiple races (ie: Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick) can adjust to pretty much any changes. I think fans hope that these changes will bring different winners, but I really don’t see that happening. The drivers that are at the top right now are at the top for a reason, they adapt very well to all of these changes that NASCAR is making. I could be wrong though, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Clement :  I think that this is a step in the right direction, however, we aren’t too sure what this will do for the drivers on the track. For all we know, it could be the worst rules package they’ve come up with and drivers can’t handle their cars like they usually can. But for now, we wait and see. Hopefully this will be for the better!

Staropoli :  Definitely! With the big swing NASCAR is taking here, Kentucky is now the most anticipated race of the year in my eyes. I think there are two things to watch for:

1. Did they get the balance right? If they take away more front downforce (pan + splitter) than rear (spoiler) you’re going to recreate the same feeling as the aero push we have now. Obviously, teams can tweak on the rest of their setup to work around this; but with only one weekend for the new package to make a splash, will the balance be close right off the bat?

2. Is it enough? Even with these big changes, the cars aren’t magically going to go back to their pre-1990, brick-shaped bodies where mechanical grip is all that mattered. And just because we’re removing downforce, doesn’t mean that sideforce is any less important. The teams will still have their skirts and splitters dragging to keep all the downforce they can. Bottom line – NASCAR is making moves to continually evolve its product, this is a step in the right direction, and for that we thank you!

Hull :  I’m by no means a technical person in NASCAR, but if the drivers are all behind it and think that it will help them drive and pass better, then I am all for it. I hope that it benefits all the team’s equally and helps racing be more exciting. That’s from a fan’s perspective.

Bushee :  I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I have a hard time keeping up with the rules packages, what they mean and how much they’ll affect the cars on track. I hope this is a step in the right direction, but I honestly don’t know.

 

Question 2

One person surely wasn't disappointed with the rain at Michigan. Wait, make that two!

One person surely wasn’t disappointed with the rain at Michigan. Wait, make that two!

Some took to social media to express their displeasure with the way NASCAR handled the race at Michigan, as fans wanted to see a full race there.  In your opinion, did NASCAR do everything in its power to ensure this for not only fans, but the drivers and teams?

Hobbs :  Rain delays; gotta love ’em! No matter what NASCAR does in this scenario, they are always wrong. If they let the race go until the wee hours of the morning, those that have to go to work are upset. If they call the race (even though a track has lights), everyone is angry. Sometimes, the weather is not going to cooperate and you get what you get. It does not take an expert to look at a radar and go, “Oh crap, this is going to be here for a long time!” Even with the Air Titans, until that rain stops, they cannot do anything.

Melton :  I was one of those people who didn’t understand the frustration of fans. I really do think that NASCAR handled the race the best way they could. We can’t control the weather, unfortunately. NASCAR has had many races that have been shortened by cruddy weather and this was one of those situations. There was lightning strikes in the area and the fans safety is priority number one! We don’t want to see someone get hurt or even worse, killed. We weren’t talking a light sprinkle, at one point it looked as if there was a complete downpour going on. They attempted quite a few times to get the race going, but it just didn’t seem like the rain was going to let up. Not to mention the fact that Michigan doesn’t have lighting, so its not like they could have raced into the night.

Clement :  NASCAR did everything they could. They can’t control the weather!  Unfortunately, NASCAR has to stick to a schedule and sometimes certain events just don’t work out in their favor. You can’t wait a week to finish a race, that would just be crazy.

Staropoli :  This year, rain has played almost as large a role in determining winners as driver talent and team engineering. NASCAR has a big burden on their shoulders to juggle the safety and satisfaction of the fans. Add onto that team travel, the TV schedule, and having to deal with criticism whether you wait it out or call it early – it’s a toss-up. I’m all about getting the race in no matter what, but after red flagging it 4 times I think NASCAR did everything they could without dragging everyone through the mud (pun intended).

Hull :  I think that it wouldn’t have been safe for the fans to continue racing. It was storming bad there at the end. Also, it had been raining there all day, and most of the drivers and fans in the grandstands were getting tired. So NASCAR made the right decision.

Bushee :  I can answer this one easily. As a fan who attended that race, NASCAR did absolutely EVERYTHING right in this situation. I’m almost positive that the TV didn’t show just how bad that last rain delay was. We had to take cover under the grandstands and you couldn’t even see the cars on pit road while it rained. I’m thankful they took safety of everyone into consideration. Did I want to see an entire race? Of course! When you spend that kind of money, it’s the main goal.

Question 3

Larry Mac showing off his bling bling for one last time in the booth today.

Larry Mac showing off his bling bling for one last time in the booth today.

It’s the last race for FOX NASCAR this season.  What’s been your take on their coverage under this current TV package in terms of the pros and cons?

Hobbs :  FOX’s coverage has not really improved or lacked in their previous years. Next year though, with Jeff Gordon in the booth, I am expecting some new and more insightful things to be said all around. Michael Waltrip can keep his grid walk because that entertains us all, but FOX still needs to stop up the game just a touch. I am leaving commercials out of this comment because I know exactly how this works and this is what we will get.

Melton :  FOX has always been my favorite coverage for NASCAR races. I absolutely love the team, I thin they are entertaining and very knowledgable. I think the only con I can think of is the fact that fans got jipped out of quite a few Xfinity races.

Clement :  I think that FOX NASCAR did a good job with covering the race, pre and post race events. Watching NASCAR switch from channel to channel is tough but hopefully NASCAR finds their own broadcasting home soon!

Staropoli :  The TV deal has gotten a lot of press between ratings and the formation of the RTA. It’s also obvious that we’re transitioning away from consuming races only on TV, and moving towards other outlets like social media and all kinds of crazy apps.

That being said, FOX has done solid work, especially with all of the rain delays (pssst: rerun 2003 Darlington whenever you want). I also really like how they’ve incorporated a rotating group of drivers as guest commentators – I might be biased, but drivers give the best insight into what’s going on out there (although the crew chiefs might disagree).

Regardless, FOX did great and I’m excited to see what NBC has up their sleeve.

Hull :  One of the pros, and I’m going to miss him next year being up in the booth, is Larry Mac. He’s always insightful, and puts his knowledge into layman’s terms so that the fans who have limited technical knowledge can understand what’s going on. I also loved (like Patrick mentioned) how they brought up different drivers during the rain delays. That’s always fantastic. But I can live without the commercials.

Bushee :  I don’t really have any complaints about coverage other than the commercials, but we all know they can’t do too much about those. I do wish they wouldn’t have teamed up with FS1 and 2, though.

Question 4

We’re on to Sonoma Raceway, a NASCAR tradition since 1989 with fantastic duels and races it its run in the Sprint Cup Series.  What are some of the keys to success with getting around this track and which racers does this track suit in terms of running in the front and battling for the win on Sunday?

Hobbs :  Obviously, this track will benefit those with a lot of road course experience; I do not expect any rookies to run well at their first road course. A road course is a totally different beast and it takes the most concentration from the driver out of all the circuits they run. Left turns, right turns, up hills, down hills – they’ve got it all! It is time for those who are masters of this track, like Gordon and Stewart, to make some noise if they want to find themselves in the Chase. This race also one that The Dinger has circled on his calendar, so watch out for him.

Melton :  You would think this would be a great track for Jimmie Johnson, but he has only had one win at this track. Jeff Gordon has five wins at Sonoma, which is quite a few, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do well for this race.

Clement :  Not only focusing on what you and your team is doing, but also focusing on the next moves of all the drivers around you. Sonoma is a huge tradition with NASCAR, and the races there always end up well. Hopefully someone new can battle to the front at this track!

Staropoli :  I love road course racing. Stock cars on road courses put on a better show than most road course series. Tires go away, beating and banging is guaranteed (hello turn 11!), and the crazy strategies make these races great for dark horses.

10-15 years ago your favorites had to be Gordon, Stewart, (Robby) Gordon, Boris Said, and Ron Fellows. Now thanks to Boris teaching half the field his tricks (does anyone know where I can sign-up for that class?) you never know who will be up front.

Hendrick will be strong. Ganassi had a lot of speed last year; Edwards won it. We know Harvick is pretty much a lock to run P2. Ambrose is on the wrong side of the pond, so that leaves the Dinger to wow us all again.

But let’s get real – it’s all about momentum. Truex Jr. won Sonoma 2 years ago in an MWR car and everything is going his way at Front Row. Crew Chief Cole Pearn proved he can call a race winning strategy on an oval – next step, road course. My money’s on Truex.

Hull :  I’m am by no means a crew chief, but the best way to getting around this track is to manage your fuel, and I could see drivers like Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon benefiting from this.

Bushee :  I’m not a huge fan of Sonoma. I may be an odd ball on this one, but they just don’t excite me. That being said, I’d love to see Jeff Gordon or Dale Jr get a win here. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out.

We just went four laps around Sonoma, in a sort of writing kind of way!  Now before we go for the win today, let’s look at our TPF Track Talk points standings following Round 15 at Michigan:

  1. Rob Tiongson – 533 points (3 wins)
  2. Ashley Hull – 500 points (1 win)
  3. Ashley Hobbs – 467 points (2 wins)
  4. Jessica Bushee – 425 points
  5. Courtney Clement – 413 points (1 win)
  6. Jessica Tow – 337 points
  7. Kim Melton – 181 points (2 wins)
  8. Patrick Staropoli – 0 points, first race today at Sonoma

Alright, the white flag is out on this edition of Track Talk: Sonoma Edition!  With that, let’s reveal our race picks for today’s Toyota/Save Mart 350!

Either do something with the arms or bring a helmet when you're a TPF Track Talk pick.

Either do something with the arms or bring a helmet when you’re a TPF Track Talk pick.

Tiongson :  He may not like the idea of being a racer who’s oft brought up when it’s road course racing time but one has to think that AJ Allmendinger will be a factor on Sunday at Sonoma.  Watch for the Watkins Glen ’14 winner to make a loud statement in wine country.

Hobbs :  It is time for Jeff Gordon to get back to his winning ways!

Melton :  My race pick for Sonoma is going to be Jeff Gordon. Jeff does very well at this track and I think he is due for a win. He has been working his butt off every race, so I think we might see something good from him this weekend.

Bushee :  As far as my race pick goes, I’m going with Jeff Gordon for the win. I’m not really sure how that’ll play but we’ll see!

Staropoli :  Editor’s Note – Patrick’s made it quite clear he’ll be going with Martin Truex Jr. today!

Hull :  My pick for this weekend (and I may jinx him) will be Carl Edwards.

Clement :  With his luck lately, I’m going with Dale Earnhardt Jr.!

There you have it, race fans!  The Track Talk crew has spoken and given their thoughts on the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.  How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team and to Patrick for joining us this weekend for our Sonoma preview!

As always, the opinions and thoughts express in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF and FanvsFan nor the organizations mentioned, FanVsFan, or of TPF.  This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.​

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, you'll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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