Parity shining as Cup Series heads to wine country in Sonoma

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to a fully wide-open Sonoma Raceway ready for race fans to enjoy the Toyota/Save Mart 350 (4 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN). This will mark the second of six road courses on the schedule for 2022 (COTA, Sonoma, Road America, Indianapolis RC, Watkins Glen and Charlotte ROVAL). Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain took the first road course victory of the year in dramatic fashion at Circuit of the Americas earlier this season.

Now the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Sonoma, California to wrestle the challenging multi-elevational Sonoma Raceway road course for the 33rd time in series history.

Sonoma Raceway was opened as a 2.52-mile, multi-elevational paved road course and drag strip in 1968. Over the course of its existence, the 12-turn facility has held a few different names – Sears Point Raceway, Sears Point International Raceway, and Infineon Raceway prior to being renamed Sonoma Raceway.

The first NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma Raceway was held on June 11, 1989 and was won by Ricky Rudd driving a Buick for car owner Kenny Bernstein. Rudd ran the race at an average speed of 76.088 mph and led 61 of 74 scheduled laps (82.4%).

Over the years, the format and track configuration has changed at Sonoma Raceway. The first nine NASCAR Cup Series races at Sonoma were 300 kilometers and then switched to a 350k format in 1998. The track was reconfigured to 1.949-miles in 1998 with the installation of an 890-foot chute between the original Turns 4 and 7. The track was reconfigured to 2.0 miles in 2001 and re-measured at 1.99 miles in 2002.

In 2019 and 2021, the track was reconfigured back to the original 2.52-mile configuration with races being 90 laps – 226.8 miles. This season, Sonoma Raceway will be returning the track configuration back to the 1.99-mile configuration with the return of the ‘chute’. 

Does that affect the racing? That remains to be seen in what has been one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent history.

We’re 15 races in with 11 different winners. While Hendrick Motorsports looks like they should be the favorites on Sunday in having a stretch of 9 road course wins in 11 races entering 2022, they looked pedestrian back in COTA.

Chase Elliott is the road racing master (7 wins) but is 0-for-5 at Sonoma though too. Is he really ready to win in Sonoma? Kyle Larson is the defending race winner but struggled mightily with this new car on the 1st road course of the season.

Elliott, who leads all active drivers in road course wins, is currently ranked third on the NASCAR Cup Series all-time road course wins list behind NASCAR Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon with nine road course wins and Tony Stewart with eight. Elliott’s teammate in Larson, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion, became the first driver in series history to win at three different road courses in a single season last year (Sonoma, Watkins Glen and Charlotte Roval). The Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished 1-2 at Sonoma last season with Larson taking the win, giving the organization its series leading seventh victory at the road course in California’s wine country.

Elliott’s last 3 finishes on the season have all been outside the top 20. Larson has 1 top 5 in his last 5 races.

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 06: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Sport Clips Toyota, and Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem/Smurfit Kappa Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 06, 2021 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Plus, Chevrolet has won just 3 times in the last 14 years at Sonoma. Ford is only 2-for-18. Does that open the door for the Toyota guys?

Toyota has won 2 of the last 3 races on the season and 2 of the last 3 in Sonoma too.

Martin Truex Jr. has led the most laps in 3 of the last 4 in Sonoma and is a 3-time winner there. He’s also had a 6th place finish in 2 of the last 3 races on the season too.

Kyle Busch is a two-time Sonoma winner and has scored five top five finishes in his last six wine country starts including a worst finish of seventh in this time frame. He also has 8 top 10’s in his last 9 starts on the season including 5 top 3’s out of his No. 18 Toyota in the last 7 and 3 straight top 2’s.

Denny Hamlin has 2 top 5’s in his last 3 races on the year with only 1 top 10 in the 12 races prior. At Sonoma, Hamlin has five straight top 10’s including three of which being in the top five. He had just one top five and two total top 10’s in his previous 10 Sonoma starts before that.

Christopher Bell is new here but has 5 straight top 10’s in his No. 20 Toyota and was 3rd on the lone road course this season in COTA, won his only race of his career on a road course (Daytona), was runner-up last year in Road America and had a top 3 car for most of the race in Indy and Watkins Glen.

Kurt Busch has five top 10’s in his last six Sonoma starts and 2 top 3’s in his last 3 races on the season.

Truex gets Cole Pearn back at one of his best tracks

A friendly face to Martin Truex Jr. has returned. Joe Gibbs Racing has called on Cole Pearn to return to the No. 19 team this weekend at Sonoma Raceway and will serve as race engineer assisting crew chief James Small. Truex and No. 19 team are currently winless in the NASCAR Cup Series this season, and Sonoma Raceway is one of Truex’s best tracks – he leads all active drivers in wins at Sonoma with three.

Pearn previously served as crew chief for Truex from 2015-2019 leading him to 24 wins, 70 top fives, 110 top 10s and the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series title before retiring at the conclusion of the 2019 season.

Two of Truex’s three victories at Sonoma Raceway have come with Pearn at his side (2018, 2019). In total, Truex has made 15 series starts at Sonoma posting three wins (2013, 2018, 2019), five top fives and six top 10s. He also leads all active drivers in laps led at the track with 213.

Playoff Bubble: Harvick outside looking in; 12 year streak of making the Playoffs in jeopardy

One of the most consistent drivers in recent NASCAR Cup Series history seems to be spinning the tires as of late. Kevin Harvick’s last win was in 2020 (Bristol) and he has dropped outside the Playoff cutline following World Wide Technology Raceway in the standings. Now, his streak of the last 12 consecutive seasons of making the Playoffs could be in jeopardy.

The veteran, Harvick, hasn’t missed a postseason in the NASCAR Cup Series since 2009, and he is tied with Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson for the all-time most Playoff appearances with 15 each. Hamlin and Busch have already won this season assuring they will move on to their 16th Playoff appearance, but Harvick hasn’t won yet and now find himself two points behind Tyler Reddick in the 16th and final transfer spot on points.

Harvick has won at Sonoma (2017) but finished 22nd in last season’s race. Thankfully, this season the track configuration will return to the 1.99-mile length and incorporate the ‘chute’, the same one Harvick last won on. In total, Harvick has made 20 starts at Sonoma posting one win and six top fives.

Is Last Week in Ross Chastain’s Head?

Ross Chastain is an aggressive driver by nature. It’s how he’s gotten to the point he’s at and that’s by being more of a taker than a giver. He’s had to be in what equipment he’s had. Unfortunately, it rubs people wrong and he made some enemies last week in Gateway. Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin both were pissed at him. Chastain even admitted that he was mad at himself for driving what he said was over his head. Now a week later, is it still in his head?

He doesn’t want to make enemies so I wonder if he cools it down a bit on Sunday in Sonoma. Remember, Chastain purposely pushed AJ Allmendinger out of the way to win his first career victory in COTA earlier this year. What happens in that scenario again with what happened last Sunday?

If Chastain drives less aggressive, I almost wonder if that takes away his shot at winning. That’s not his style and usually when drivers go against who they are, results slip. That’s also exactly why Trackhouse Racing is saying everything they are about Chastain right now in trying to not allow him to change anything about this approach either.

However, you have 2 sides beating info into Chastain’s already mudded head and one that could slow him on Sunday.

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