The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will compete at Sonoma Raceway Sunday. NASCAR had two practices Friday before the drivers will compete for the pole Saturday afternoon. I usually receive a lot of information for my Garage Talk Notes but sometimes that is not the case on the road courses. The teams spend a lot of time on the track and do not discuss too much about their cars. I posted information about each driver’s history at Sonoma and any insider information I was able to find out.
Here are the Garage Talk Notes for the practices at Sonoma…
The weather during final practice was sunny and 93 degrees. The forecast for the race Sunday is sunny and 82 degrees. The cooler temps will provide more grips but the track should still be hot and slick. The practice speed should translate into race speed because it is more about a driver’s ability to shift, brake and hit his marks at this track than it is about the track temperatures.
Each team received 3 sets of tires for the two practices Friday, 1 set for qualifying and 6 sets for the race. Tires will be very important in the race Sunday because the drivers who can save the tires on the long runs will work their way to the front. They will run the same tire compound as the MENCS has run at Sonoma since 2016 so the teams should have a good idea of how the tires will wear in the race.
This is an impound race. That means the teams are not allowed to touch the cars after qualifying Friday. If any of the drivers have problems and get off course in qualifying (they always do), they may have to start from the back if the team elects to fix the car.
Chase Elliott: Elliott does not have a lot of experience at Sonoma but he is showing some improvement. He finished 21st in his rookie season and 8th last year. Elliott has a lot of resources to help him learn how to navigate this tough track, mainly his father, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson could be a sneaky good pick this week. He has not finished worse than 13th at Sonoma in the last decade. Johnson has also led at least 12 laps in 2 of the last 3 races at the track. Johnson really liked his car in practice. He made some long runs and said, “If I can get through 11 a little better we will be perfect.” He knows what it takes to win this race.
Alex Bowman: Bowman will get some extra seat time this week in preparation for the Toyota Save Mart 350. Bowman will compete in the K&N West Series race Saturday. The extra time in the car should help him Sunday. The No. 88 team told Bowman, “Each lap is better than the one before. Just hit your marks and keep doing what you are doing.” Bowman just needs some experience and he will get it this weekend. On his final run he was complaining about wheel-hop in the car.
William Byron: Byron will also get some extra seat time this week because he will compete in the K&N West Series race Saturday. Byron does not have much experience at Sonoma since the Xfinity Series and the Trucks do not compete at the track. Byron was able to finish 5th in the K&N West Series race at Sonoma in 2015. Byron made a long run in final practice and smoke was coming out of the car. They thought it was something in the motor.
Kyle Larson: Larson obviously has qualifying figured out at Sonoma. He has never qualified worse than 5th at the track (4 races). The problem is that Larson has never finished in the top 10. Each season he keeps getting better though and he said he learned a lot from Jamie McMurray. Larson made some long runs and he said, “I am having a hard time finding my rhythm. It seems like I am spending too much time fighting the car.” The team kept making adjustments to free up the No. 42 car. Larson made a long run in final practice and smoke was coming out the backend of the car. The team changed the transmission and now the car is fine.
Jamie McMurray: McMurray will be one of the best cheap picks in salary cap games this week. McMurray has an average finishing position of 10th in the last 4 races at the track. He has also started on the front row in 3 of the last 5 races.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick won the race at Sonoma last year and he has been very consistent at the track in recent years. He has finished the last 3 races at the track in the top 6 (with an average finishing position of 3.7).
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer finished 2nd at Sonoma last year and went to Victory Lane at the track in _. He has finished in the top 10 in 6 of the last 7 races at the track. His average finishing position at Sonoma is 10th (that is a series best).
Kurt Busch: Busch should be the safest pick in the field this week. He has not finished outside the top 12 at Sonoma in the last decade (and he did it with 4 different teams). His average finishing position in the last 3 races at the track is 6.3 (third-best behind Harvick and Kyle Busch). Busch made a long run and he said, “I am not sure we can make it any better. It is pretty consistent throughout the track.”
Aric Almirola: Last year Kevin Harvick won the K&N West Series race and then went on to win the race Sunday. This week Almirola will be driving the car Harvick won the race with in the K&N West Series race Saturday. The extra seat time should give him what he needs to run well Sunday. Almirola liked his car and he should. His teammates were all in the top 5 so his car had to have some speed. Almirola spent most of the practice sessions running between 12th and 15th.
Brad Keselowski: Keselowski is often referred to as one of the best road course drivers but the truth is that he is a LOT better at Watkins Glen than he is at Sonoma. Keselowski only has one finish inside the top 10 at the track but the good news is it came in the race last year. Keselowski started 23 and used fuel millage to finish 3rd.
Joey Logano: Logano is one of the most consistent drivers in the field at Sonoma. He probably will not win and will not lead many laps but he has a good chance to finish in the top 10. Logano has an average finishing position of 6.6 in the last 3 races at Sonoma. The No. 22 car was too tight in practice. They spent a lot of time in the first practice making short runs and then working on the car. They made some long runs in final practice and Logano felt the car was better.
Ryan Blaney: He was not very good at Sonoma in his rookie season (finished 23rd) but he bounced back with a 9th-place finish last year. His average running position last year was 5.8 and he spent a lot of the race in second place. Blaney is a quick learned and could be a good pick for your team. Blaney was running fast laps in practice but cut turn 11 too close and ran into the tire barrier. He smashed the front fender of the No. 12 car.
Paul Menard: Menard will be driving the car that Blaney ran in the top 5 for most of the race last year at Sonoma. Menard often gets overlooked on the road courses but he shouldn’t. His average finishing position in the last 4 seasons at Sonoma is 11th and this should be the best car he has ever had. He will be a great cheap pick in salary cap games. Menard was making good lap times but then he hit the tire barrier in first practice Friday. He smashed the front fended and the team had to pound I out.
Kyle Busch: Busch is the only driver in the field with 2 wins at Sonoma. His 4 wins on the road courses also is a series-high. Busch was not happy with the car in the first practice. He said, “It just won’t turn in 2,7 or 11.” He was 13th fastest at the time. Busch made a qualifying run in final practice and only posted the 17th fastest time. The team continued to work on the car to get it dialed in for the race Sunday.
Erik Jones: The No. 20 team will do their best to get Jones some more experience at Sonoma. Jones finished 25th in this race last year. This week he will compete in the K&N West Series race Saturday. Jones mowed some grass in the first practice Friday. He missed a turn and went through the grass.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin is quickly becoming one of the drivers to beat at Sonoma. He has the 2nd-best driver rating and the 2nd-best average finishing position in the last 2 races at Sonoma. He has also led a series-high 44 laps in those races. Hamlin worked on qualifying in final practice and he was really fast. The team is happy with their single-lap speed but they think they will need more long-run speed to win the race Sunday.
Daniel Suarez: Suarez performed well on the road courses last year. He finished 3rd at Watkins Glen and 16th at Sonoma. Suarez will get some extra seat time this weekend since he will compete in the K&N West Series race Saturday.
Martin Truex Jr.: Truex was the best driver on the road courses last year. He won at Watkins Glen and dominated the race at Sonoma. He probably would have won if he did not have a battery issue in the race. Do not overlook the No. 78 car this week. Truex liked the balance of the car. He said, “I can keep some good speed in it through all of the turns. It is not too bad. We need to work a little more on what we did last year.” (Not sure what they worked on last year but Truex led the most laps). Truex was running behind Bubba (No driving skills) Wallace and got into the back of him. The No. 78 car had a lot of damage but they will try to fix it before qualifying.
Ryan Newman: Newman should be a safe pick for your fantasy team this week. He has never won at Sonoma and I doubt he will have a chance to win Sunday, but he will have a great chance to finish in the top 10. Newman has a 10th-place average finishing position in his last 4 races at the track. Newman made some long runs n practice and ran mostly in the top 12. He told the team he needed more rear grip in the car.
Austin Dillon: There are better tracks to use Dillon at. He has never finished inside the top 15 at Sonoma. His average running position at the track is 21.8. I doubt he will figure it out this week. Dillon made a short run in the first practice and said, “We need to start over. This setup will not work.” The team spent a lot of time in the garage making adjustments.
Ty Dillon: This is not a good race to really on the No. 13 car for a good finish. Dillon only has one start at Sonoma and he was in the way of the other drivers for most of the race. He started 35th and finished 28th.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne is a former winner at the track (2009) and he has finished 5 of the last 6 races at the track in the top 10. He has the talent to run in the top 10 but will he have the car. The team made a crew chief change over the off week and that concerns me. It may take them a while to get on the same page. Kahne spun out in the first practice Friday.
AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger is no doubt one of the best road course races in the sport. He will qualify up front (Allmendinger has started the last 4 races at the track in the top 5) and he will run up front (he has led laps in the last 4 races at Sonoma). The problem is that Allmendinger often overdrives the car and it leads to problems in the race. Allmendinger has only finished 1 of the last 4 races at Sonoma inside the top 35. Allmendinger complained a lot about the brakes but he was turning fast laps in practice.
Chris Buescher: Buescher said last year that he spent a lot of time with AJ Allmendinger in the race simulator to learn how to navigate Sonoma. He learned a lot. Buescher qualified 9th and finished 19th last year. But Buescher had an 11th-place average running position and led 4 laps (not too bad). Buescher will be a good cheap pick this week.
Darrell Wallace Jr.: Wallace will be competing in his first race at Sonoma and this track is usually very tough on rookies. Wallace does have a pair of top-10 finishes at Road America in the Xfinitity Series but he really struggled at Watkins Glen (never finished inside the top 15 in the Xfinity Series). I would not expect much from Wallace this week. Wallace spent about as much time off the track as he did on the track. He looked totally lost out there today.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Sonoma ranks as the worst track for Stenhouse and it is not even close. His average finishing position in his five trips to the track is 29th. Stenhouse wrecked on lap 30 last year and finished 38th.
Trevor Bayne: Bayne will be back in the No. 6 car for the next 3 races. He said he sat down with Matt Kenseth to compare notes and he learned a lot from him. It will be interesting to see if the switch to Kenseth in the car can really help Bayne.
David Ragan: Ragan has been a pretty good sleeper pick this season but I would not count on him this week. Sonoma ranks as his 2nd-worst track. Ragan has not finished inside the top 30 at Sonoma since 2012. His average finishing position at the track is 31st. Ragan said he has been working with Michael McDowell to figure out the track. He was 6th fastest in his first run Friday.
Michael McDowell: McDowell has not been very good at Sonoma in his career. He only has one finish inside the top 20 but the good news is it came last season (McDowell finished 14th). That was in the No. 95 car. I am worried about his performance this week in the Front Row Racing Ford. The team does not have a good track record at Sonoma.
Matt DiBenedetto: DiBenedetto has a slim chance of run well Sunday. He really struggled at Sonoma while driving for BK Racing but ran well last year in the GO FAS Racing Ford. DiBenedetto qualified 27th and finished 23rd. DiBenedetto was complaining that the truck arms were dragging on the track. He also said, “It is OK… just too free. I need to be tightened up.”
Cars that looked good in practice: Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger
Good Sleeper Picks: Jimmie Johnson Jamie McMurray, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne
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