Track Talk: Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway

Since 1989, Sonoma Raceway has been a NASCAR fixture as the West Coast’s road course representative for the Sprint Cup Series.  For its first eight races, the Cup circuit utilized the full 2.52-mile, 12 turn course before going to a shortened version of the track in 1998 with a new mini straightaway intended to help the heavier stock cars negoiate around this venue in a faster fashion.  Call it “the main squeeze” or “The Chute” but this particular feature of the track greatly changed this track from a technical road course into a race circuit that resembled short track racing in the Southeast.

Love it or hate it, the current 1.99-mile layout has been a fixture for the past 15 years and while it’s now just down to 10 corners, it’s still quite a challenging track for the drivers and teams.  It punishes transmissions, puts the drivers to the mental and physical test with the fancy footwork and grueling conditions, and most of all, it is one of the two times in which the drivers have a somewhat expanded role with their race day fate.  Some racers who may not necessarily contend at every event have a chance to be a Chase spoiler as it’s a great equalizer for the smaller teams versus the juggernaut operations of the Cup division.

Could today’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 be the day in which Danica Patrick or Michael McDowell work their way to the front of the pack? Can Kyle Busch duplicate his winning efforts from last year?  Or will a rookie race into Victory Lane?  After 110 laps or 218.9 miles, we may just see one of the more interesting races of the season!

We’ve about got our car set up here on “Track Talk” so let’s get to the track with“Trending Topics” with our TPF Track Talk team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley HullCody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKatie CoppleSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley!

Trending Topics

Question 1
Logano the winner!

Logano the winner!

Joey Logano finally captured his first win of the 2016 season as he bested Chase Elliott two weekends ago at Michigan.  Does this mark the beginning of some winning times for Logano and his No. 22 team especially heading into the summer races at Sonoma, Daytona, Kentucky, and Loudon?

Fesko :  Definitely. Once you get a win it only boosts your confidence, and Logano has confidence in spades already. Considering he’s won at Loudon before, look for him to be strong there. Kentucky is another track he should shine – remember how well he did in the XFINITY Series there a couple of years back? As for the other two races coming up, I wouldn’t say he’s the favorite but he’s won at a road course before as well as Daytona. Watch out, field.

Hull :  If he does win another race, his best chance would be at Loudon, where he has won twice. But his issue this season has been consistency. It’s fair to say that compared to other teams, Penske has been struggling some this season. But this win at Pocono should give Joey more confidence, and could help him maintain his consistency. We shall see in these next few weeks.

Cassidy :  I believe that Joey’s win just pushed the fact that Team Penske is competitive in 2016 and this season will not be all about the Gibbs boys. Logano has proved that he can win multiple races in a season as we saw in 2015. With Keselowski already at two wins, Logano with one, and Blaney with solid finishes most season, Penske will be a force moving forward in 2016.

Copple :  Truthfully, I think Logano and his No.22 team are still missing something that will get them those wins and really make them a championship contending team. They haven’t quite been as competitive as I expected them to be this season. I don’t know what they are missing in that team or in the Penske organization but there is something and until they find that “something” they are missing.

Shoppe :  I think now that now that Joey Logano has now broken into winner’s circle, we will be seeing the 22 team winning often. Penske has been getting better and better lately so expect Joey getting more wins.

Conley :  Momentum is still big in this sport and taking a win in to an off week then the stretch this team has in front of them. He certainly could be a top-five car this weekend, and a win isn’t out of the realm of possibility.  As for Daytona, Kentucky and Loudon, we could talk about Logano having five wins by the end of July. There is no question this team is right where they want to be.

Question 2
#ThorSportStrong.

#ThorSportStrong.

Let’s reflect for a few moments on the setback and rallying moments for ThorSport Racing.  This four truck NASCAR team lost about 40 percent of its shop from a fire last week that broke their hearts but not their spirits.  Would you say they’re the feel good story of the major three series considering the adversities they have overcome and continue to take head on in these summer races?

Fesko :  They’re definitely a feel-good story, although I’m not sure if they’re the feel-good story. Remember that this team is a championship contender. It’s not as if they’re literally rising out of the ashes as a stronger, championship-contending team. They are already at that point. If anything, it shows their resiliency and heart. I’m thinking that, at the moment, Daniel Suarez’s Michigan win is the feel-good story of the year.

Hull :  It was really heartbreaking to see their shop being damaged by a fire, especially after all of the tragic events that were happening on a national scale. When things like this happen, it can be easy to wallow in your sorrows and let it break your spirits. But this team is very strong, and one of the better teams in the NCWTS. Matt Crafton has won 2 championships for them, and is currently leading in points after Iowa. Crafton and two of the four drivers on the team (Cameron Hayley and Ben Rhodes) finished in the top ten at Iowa. So this proves that although this team had suffered a loss, that doesn’t weaken their resolve. If anything, since they are all great drivers, it will make the stronger.

Cassidy :  By showing up to the track last weekend, this team showed they will not give up. Despite the large set back, everyone at ThorSport Racing was still willing to put in all the time and effort needed to make race weekend happen. This shows something about not only the teams but organization as a whole.

Copple :  I was heartbroken when word got out about the fire in the ThorSport Racing camp. It is a devastating thing to happen to ANY race organization but for a small one like ThorSport, it was just terrible. I have the utmost respect for this team. They didn’t let this deter them or their race teams one bit. They may have an uphill battle ahead of them to get back to 100% but to have the attitude and the spirit that they have kept through this entire ordeal is inspiring.

Shoppe :  ThorSport’s story is a great example of the perseverance you need to be champions. The Sandusky, Ohio team has been doing it their own way since the late 1990’s and has been very successful. It has been a great story to see all the other teams offer a helping hand to get them to the track as well as the team working on trucks in a store parking lot. I feel like if you weren’t a fan of ThorSport before, you should be now! Duke and Rhonda Thorson’s organization has a long road to recovery ahead of them but if any team in the truck series can overcome this adversity, they sure can!

Conley :  I think the feel good story is how the sport overall rallied behind ThorSport Racing. Duke and Rhonda Thorson are keen parts of the Truck Series and to see the series, other teams, and sponsors come together to help them in any way they needed, then go to Iowa and put three trucks in the top-five was tremendous. Horrible events in northern Ohio, but the sport won’t let them down. That should make everyone involved feel good.

Question 3
Bow before me, people!

Bow before me, people!

We’ve seen some great emotional wins in the past few weeks with Daniel Suarez winning his first major NASCAR race at Michigan two weeks ago and Sam Hornish Jr taking the win at Iowa last weekend.  How pivotal and important were these wins not only for these drivers’ teams but for the sport as a whole?

Fesko :  Both wins are important. For Hornish, it could signal the start of another NASCAR comeback so it’s great for him but it won’t necessarily bring new eyes to the sport. Suarez’s win, however, will. Becoming the first Mexican-born driver to win in NASCAR is huge for the sport’s international reach and will inspire people in other countries to try their hand at racing. It’s also a big boon to the sport’s push for diversity. Both wins are great, for sure, but Suarez’s takes the cake.

Hull :  These were very important wins. Daniel Suarez, who is well liked among the XFINITY drivers captured his first win of his career. It is always big seeing a first-time winner. And even better, he beat out Kyle Busch. As we all know, Kyle is a fierce competitor, and to win against him is a great thing. Suarez has the talent to go far in this series, and will be a force to be reckoned with in the Cup series one day.

After not being given a chance for a ride this year, it was a huge victory for Sam Hornish, Jr. I know that he struggled last year in the Cup series, but it still baffles me as to why he doesn’t have a ride. He pretty much dominated that race on Sunday. I think that it was great to see an underdog win. That is why we love seeing Suarez and Hornish win. It is good rooting for the underdogs and seeing them win.

Cassidy :  Clearly these wins were special to the drivers but they were also appreciated by the fans. Both of these drivers are not regulars to the winner circle yet. It is good for fans to get their taste of different winners. This prevents the strong opinions in relation to Cup regulars always winner lower series. In addition, Suarez was able to make history by winning MIS. This is great for NASCAR’s history and international relations to the sport.

Copple :  It’s always a good day when someone new takes the checkered flag. I believe the entire racing community was cheering for Suarez when he got that victory! As for Sam Hornish Jr., I’ve been a fan of his since his days in IndyCar and to see him struggle in NASCAR, then have a few good season, and then struggle again has been hard to watch. He is a talented driver who just hasn’t quite found that “umfph” he needs. Seeing him get that victory was rewarding. He’s been working his butt off every weekend and it finally paid off! I hope to see many more victories in his future.

Shoppe :  It is certainly great to see a feel good win story! The last two weeks have seen some great examples of that. The first win of many for NASCAR’s first Mexican winner Daniel Suarez followed by a win for a driver that many thought might never get a chance to win again in Sam Hornish. Although they both were yet a couple more wins for the ultra dominant Joe Gibbs Racing team in XFINITY, they were some wonderful stories that will keep the fans interested in NASCAR’s second tier division.

Conley :  Suarez in Victory Lane was key for the sport as far as the Drive for Diversity program. Showing that it does work, it’s a challenge, but overcoming is exactly what the program is about. The win for Hornish is big for him personally. Knowing that he didn’t lose out because of talent, but because of situations…he can still race and with the right team, he can win on any given weekend as proven at the race in Iowa. A win for that JGR team is just another win but Hornish had to have been wondering where he went wrong. Iowa was just a big boost for Sam and hopefully a building block to get him back in the sport full-time.

Question 4
A sight to see back in 1995!

A sight to see back in 1995!

Sonoma Raceway has been home to some of the most exciting and controversial moments in our sport from the Ernie Irvan worst to first win in 1992, Dale Earnhardt’s only road course win in ’95, Jeff Gordon’s three straight victories from ’98-2000, and Juan Pablo Montoya’s breakthrough win in 2007.  Will we see more of an exciting race or perhaps one with excitement and controversy laced together?

Fesko :  All the races these days seem to have controversy, especially the ones where speeds aren’t as high. Enter Sonoma: the road course that races like a short track. Expect an exciting race and lots of emotion as one driver sees their Chase dream realized and others are dealt another setback.

Hull :  It will be interesting to see if any of the above does happen on Sunday. I think that we will see good racing no matter what, since this year has been chock full of great finishes. Sonoma always has the best finishes, and I don’t think that Sunday will be any different. This is why this is one of my favorite tracks on the circuit. We will just see how the race pans out.

Cassidy :  Road courses always add different elements to the NASCAR season. That is why people love or hate them. I think we will see a winner who people normally would under estimate in the Cup series.

Copple :  I love road courses! Did I say that loud enough? They are my favorite races on the circuit because it throws new elements, like turning right, at these drivers and they only get a few chances at these courses every season. We also get to see drivers who may not always run up front on the oval tracks, compete for the win! I’m excited to see how Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney handle this road courses. Bring on Sonoma!

Shoppe :  I think we will see an exciting and possibly controversial race Sunday. Sonoma is one of very few opportunity races for some teams that may not have a chance at the oval tracks. Drivers that find themselves desperate to win their way into the playoffs might find themselves in a situation where they have to knock a guy into the sand for a pivotal road coarse win.

Conley :  Summertime in wine country. Drivers love it, fans love it, and the sport loves it. Writers hate it because you have to write a dozen different recaps in hoping that one actually covers what happens at the end. This is NOT a drama free zone. It’s road course racing and you’ll have greater success of picking a winner at Talledaga and the lottery numbers than telling what’s happening with all the twists and turns of our first road course of the year.

That’s lap one in the books for this portion of Track Talk!  Before we reveal those all important race picks, let’s review how things went two weeks ago at Michigan with the race and points report!
It was an overall close battle for our panelists...

It was an overall close battle for our panelists…

...Kathleen Cassidy continues to dominate the points battle!

…Kathleen Cassidy continues to dominate the points battle!

Alright, people!  Let’s do it to it with our race picks for today’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway!
A Dinger, Two Busch's, and Dale Jr. A great show!

A Dinger, Two Busch’s, and Dale Jr. A great show!

Tiongson :  We cat dudes stick together after all. I expect AJ Allmendinger to win at Sonoma and that means Mr. Tickles gets a lot of catnip and treats that evening!

Fesko :  AJ Allmendinger (he’s gotta win one of these things eventually, right?)

Hull :  I think that Kyle Busch will win this race since he is the defending winner and is on fire this year.

Cassidy :  Kurt Busch is my pick!

Hobbs :  Stats say Kurt Busch and I’ma stick with that!

Copple :  AJ Allmendinger for the win!

Shoppe :  Going with AJ Allmendinger!

Conley :  Going off the reservation with this pick. Dale Earnhardt Jr gets is first road course win.

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!   We’re about ready for some racing.  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. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside 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. A Boston native turned Austinite, 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, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

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. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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