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Podium Preview: Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

Kyle Larson is hoping for some California Dreams in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Kyle Larson is hoping for some California Dreams in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

After two years of racing the Carousel layout, Sonoma Raceway returns to the 1998-2018 “Chute” layout of 1.99 miles for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

In other words, the action is going to be quite intense, bordering on daring and bold with fancy footwork. Although we do not hear the term “heel and toe” as much in today’s NASCAR Cup Series action, being a nimble, smart racer prove pivotal along with great pit strategy.

While Kyle Larson dominated by sweeping the stages and winning his first Sonoma race last year, he’s got quite the task ahead as the pole sitter for a fifth straight year. He’s got some determined challengers like Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott, and the Toyota contingency of Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch along with Ross Chastain.

This weekend, Cody ShoppeJasmine SharpeKobe Lambeth, Luis TorresMatt SisolerMichelle RaynorNathan SolomonStephen ConleyTaylor Kitchen and yours truly contemplate about the action we can expect at Sonoma, Chastain’s tenacious ways and the potential final chapters of Martin Truex Jr.’s stock car efforts.

Podium Preview: Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma
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Question 1
Might we see more action in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma? (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Might we see more action in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma? (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

We saw action packed racing at the first road course race of the year at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Will we see much of the same at Sonoma Raceway, particularly with the return of the Chute?

Tiongson : I think it’ll be more competitive at Sonoma versus COTA. Without that curb by turn 4, it puts it back in the drivers’ hands, and sorry for using such a phrase, Parker Kligerman. While COTA was entertaining, imposing track limits hindered the entertainment factor for me.

Although I prefer the Carousel layout over the Chute version of Sonoma, this is a great venue that is entertaining for the fans and press. As for the drivers, it’s one of the more physical tracks in terms of brute force and physicality unlike COTA, Watkins Glen and Road America, which are technical, perfection demanding tracks.

I think it’s going to be a better race that combines the plusses of road course action with short track, paint trading, particularly on restarts and the end of stages.

Solomon : I’d like to think so. In my opinion, the return of the Chute allows for a few more passing zones and more short track style racing. 

Overall, I’m a big road course racing fan. I love that NASCAR has introduce more road course racing over the last few years and I think the product is very entertaining. However, I’ll admit – Sonoma isn’t my favorite road course in the world. I tend to bias toward Watkins Glen, the track just a few towns over from my hometown. I wish Trucks raced at The Glen still instead of Sonoma, but I’ll digress on that for not.

But, I do think the Cup cars will put on a great show Sunday. The Next Gen cars raced well at COTA, even though that road course is much different than Sonoma. After what we’ve seen in Cup lately, I believe Sunday’s race will be competitive and entertaining.

Lambeth : To be honest, I’m not sure if the return of the Chute will truly have an impact on the on-track product at Sonoma Raceway. However, it’s always fun watching the drivers sliding and coming very close to hitting the wall going through the Chute. In all of years of following NASCAR, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a driver smack that wall yet. Well, at least I can’t remember off the top of my head.

Out of all the road courses on the NASCAR schedule, I believe that Sonoma is one of the most technical circuits where overtaking becomes more challenging as the field gets spread out. However, there are some great passing opportunities and someone getting it wrong through the Chute and going wide just provides drivers a shot to capitalize on mistakes. In the end, I hope the new Cup car puts on a great show at its first outing in wine country.

Kitchen : All over social media, fans and drivers have been sharing their excitement over the return of the Chute at Sonoma Raceway.

The resurrection of the Chute connects turn 4 to turn 7, creating a small “straightaway” for passing. This shortcut will decrease the 2.520-mile layout we saw from 2019 to 2021 to its original 1.990-mile design that ran from 1998 through 2018.

In general, passing on road courses can be tough. So, to add an additional passing zone with the revival of the Chute will give the drivers more chances to gain positions on the track. This should also create more excitement for the fans as well.

Question 2
Is Ross Chastain a stock car version of Pete "Maverick" Mitchell? (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Is Ross Chastain a stock car version of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell? (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Ross Chastain races tenaciously each lap, sometimes to the ire of his competitors like Pete “Maverick” Mitchell from Top Gun. Should Chastain try to refine his approach or should his competitors accept his hard racing approach?

Shoppe : Ross Chastain said it best himself. He shouldn’t have hit Hamlin as hard as he did, but he raced him the way he had been raced. I want to see absolutely nothing change from Ross.

This guy is everything this sport needs and that race in particular. We ask for unpolished aggression all the time and when we get it, we debate whether it’s good or not. 

You can either love the aggressive driving and cheer for the watermelons being smashed, or boo him like a Kyle Busch-esque villain. Either way, everyone’s paying attention!

Sharpe : Chastain has brought quite a great deal of chaos to the series this year with his two wins. Though for some, the methods of his wins/ great finishes are not not favored. Veteran driver Denny Hamlin last week gave Ross quite the treatment. 

Drivers like Rusty Wallace and Davey Allison come to mind when I think about this question. Both were great at racing, but in some cases were too chaotic for their own good. Some weeks they would finish out front, and others would wreck out.

Having allies on the track makes racing easier and more enjoyable. People don’t want to race around hazards and in this case, want that driver to know what they’re feeling. Perhaps Chastain has taken the signs and will make a change.

Sisoler : I’m kind of torn on that one to be honest. On one hand, I think he needs to rein it back a little just because other drivers aren’t going to put up with him running them hard and causing problems.

On the other, Ross’ aggressiveness makes the racing interesting. It keeps other drivers on their toes around that 1 car, and it’s part of the reason why he is in a playoff spot.

I’d say maybe he should cook it down a touch, but figure out when he needs to harness that extra level of aggression to go for wins.

Question 3
Is it too soon for Martin Truex Jr.'s career to wind down? (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Is it too soon for Martin Truex Jr.’s career to wind down? (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Martin Truex Jr. shared that he’d reveal his future in NASCAR within the next two weeks. In your opinion, is it too soon for Truex to hang up his helmet as a Cup competitor?

Raynor : I do not think it’s too soon for Martin Truex Jr. to retire. He’s been in the sport a long time and has won a championship so he has accomplished everything he’s wanted. He wanted to test out this next gen car and see what the next level of racing is. Martin Truex Jr. is a simple man and I think he’s ready after another year to retire and focus on himself and his longtime partner Sherry. 

Torres : It’s no secret that Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t set the world on fire with the seventh-generation Cup car. Compared to his other three teammates, they’ve stood out a lot more in my eyes.

The 41-year-old can still go, but there’s a lot of uncertainty about how much long he’d like to do it. Let’s not forget about Sherry, his longtime girlfriend, who’s been battling cancer multiple times over the past several years. 

Perhaps he wants to slow down and take care of her loved one and devote his time with her. I don’t think money is an issue and if that’s the case, I can’t imagine MTJ not being set for life.

Do I want to see him retire? No. I do think he can provide a lot to the table as a couple drivers in their 40s have held their own. Not many can really say that in this day and age. At the end of the day, that’s never my choice. It’s up to Truex and what’s best for him in the future.

Three laps around Sonoma has us wishing we were out there for the full race distance! However, we’re here to cover the action. Next, let’s reflect on Race 15 of the season with last Sunday’s race and points reports from the Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway!
Solly guessed right for Gateway.

Solly guessed right for Gateway.

In this case, the points lead is quite slim.

In this case, the points lead is quite slim.

Now, let’s see those top 10 starters for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma!
Row 1
Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 2
Chris Buescher and Michael McDowell (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Chris Buescher and Michael McDowell (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 3
Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 4
Ross Chastain and Daniel Suárez (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Ross Chastain and Daniel Suárez (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Row 5
Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Last but not least, here’s our picks for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma!
It's a quartet of solid road course ringers. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

It’s a quartet of solid road course ringers. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Raynor : Kyle Larson is good at this track and is due for another win.

Tiongson : This driver won the pole and he’s the defending race winner albeit on the Carousel layout version of this track. It’s a bit shorter and demands more on the drivers to be aggressive each lap. That said, I like Kyle Larson’s chances to win his second race of the year, which would make it a California sweep this year for the Elk Grove, California native.

Sisoler : On road courses it’s hard to pick against Chase Elliott or Kaulig’s road course ringer AJ Allmendinger, but last season at Sonoma I went with Chase Elliott and he finished second to Kyle Larson. This time around, I’m taking the driver of the No. 5 to win from pole on Sunday.

Kitchen : Hendrick Motorsports continues to impress at road courses. Even before qualifying, it was clear that Larson and Elliott would be favorites at Sonoma. With both drivers starting on the front row, it’s enticing to pick one of them to win this race.

So, out of those two drivers, I believe the driver that will win the Toyota/Save Mart 350 is this season’s points leader: Chase Elliott.

Shoppe : The last few years, you never bet against Chase Elliott on a road course. But this year, with the new car, I wasn’t convinced he had the edge. After an uncharacteristically poor race in COTA, the most popular driver will rebound at Sonoma, returning to his winning ways.

Torres : Martin Truex Jr. has been a massive silly season subject because of his future being unknown beyond 2022. Media have pondered if this is it for the 2017 Cup champion. If there’s a race where he may shut the critics or even give the sport one last victorious showing, Sonoma is indeed the place to do it.

The last time the series ran “The Chute,” MTJ was victorious in 2019. Cole Pearn was calling the shots for him at the time. Now, he’ll be the one-off lead engineer for the 19 Toyota at Sonoma.

It’ll be unique how things will unfold and while Truex hasn’t set the sport on fire in the seventh generation car yet, maybe the cards will come right for him and get that first win of 2022.

Lambeth : Despite a poor qualifying effort, I think Martin Truex Jr.’s team will unlock some hidden speed for the race and get the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry back in victory lane in wine country. It would be the perfect moment to visit the winner’s circle with his former championship-winning crew chief Cole Pearn making a one-off return to NASCAR with the No. 19 team.

Solomon : This pick seems just meant to be. Martin Truex Jr. returns to one of his best tracks in search of a win. Through 15 races, 11 playoff spots have been punched and the others will fill up quickly. Plus, Cole Pearn, his 2017 championship winning crew chief, returns as an engineer this week. Expect Martin Truex Jr. to head to victory lane on Sunday.

Sharpe : The veteran driver was consistent with his practice and qualifying runs. If Kurt Busch does this during the race, he’ll end up on top.

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week! While we progress toward a new kind of normal, please do your part to curb the impacts of the pandemic by washing your hands and getting your COVID-19 vaccine or booster.

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization and its staff.

Also, if you are shopping for NASCAR or racing die-casts, be sure to check out our friends at Circle B Diecast! If your order is $30 or more, use coupon code TPF2022 for free shipping! Tell them we sent you and buy some new die-casts now!

Rob Tiongson is a 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 his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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