Toyota/Save Mart 350: Wild, chaotic Sonoma offers unique challenge

Ezra Shaw

Sonoma is a road course with all the characteristics of a short track, and it has become as unpredictable a race as any in NASCAR.

With apologies to the restrictor-plate beasts of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway where chaos and unlikely winners are prevalent, the most unpredictable track in NASCAR is in fact Sonoma Raceway.

In as many years nine different drivers have won at the road course where strategy and tire management combine to produce some of the zany moments around the 12-turn, 1.99-mile track. A stark contrast when Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart combined to win seven of nine Sonoma races from 1998-2006.

What makes Sonoma so distinct is that its characteristics — limited passing opportunities featuring tight braking zones, slower speeds, heavy contact and frayed tempers — put it more in line with Martinsville Speedway than Watkins Glen, the other road course on the Sprint Cup schedule.

These similarities are why Joey Logano called Sonoma "the short track of road courses." A not too uncommon sight is seeing a driver move a competitor out of the way using force, ala the bump-and-run tactic frequently used at Martinsville and other bullrings.

Can't pass someone cleanly? Wedge them out of the groove. Need to get around a slower group of cars? Attempt a dive-bomb entering one of the many snug corners.

"Strategy, passing each other, keeping the fenders on this thing, keeping it on the race track, it's just such a challenging place and makes it a lot of fun," Logano said. "Usually there about four or five guys that are smiling after the race and everyone else is really mad at each other, so I can't wait."

As if Sonoma wasn't already entertaining enough a change in NASCAR's playoff structure increased the SaveMart/Toyota 350 to a higher plateau of madness. Now, with a win virtually ensuring a driver qualifies for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a victory Sunday carries added meaning.

Said AJ Allmendinger of the single-car team of JTG/Daugherty Racing: "I would be lying if I said I didn't come in here with the mindset that we have a shot to win this thing. But at the same point, the Sprint Cup Series every weekend, it is so tough now."

Because Sonoma creates a level of parity not found on the majority of tracks comprising the Cup schedule, the door is ajar for a driver from a smaller team to burst through and earn an unlikely playoff bid. A direct byproduct: Increased desperation among those whose chance to win is limited to either a road course or one of the two restrictor-plate tracks.

"It's an opportunity for a lot of drivers," Clint Bowyer said. "That's why it's a dangerous race. For the Chase and for where we're at in the points, you've got some guys that are back in the points. Guys that you really know you're not going to be racing for points into the championship, but they could certainly go out and win this race and put themselves into the championship Chase. Dangerous race — it really is."

Although the pressure might be amplified this weekend for some, NASCAR's modified criteria for making the Chase has also greatly lessened the stress to perform for others.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't disguise his lack of enthusiasm on having to turn left and right. But in years past mindful about NASCAR's emphasis on consistency and accumulating points, Earnhardt would treat Sonoma like any other race. Testing was done beforehand in an attempt to post a respectable result that would keep Earnhardt high in the standings.

It was all to no avail. Never in 14 career starts has Earnhardt finished in the top 10.

This year, however, having won twice and well-situated in points, Earnhardt knows he's in the Chase regardless of where he finishes at Sonoma. Accordingly, the No. 88 did no road course testing in advance, and is approaching Sunday with a different mindset.

"We just decided not to work that hard and just go there without a test and wing it," Earnhardt said. "We can go there with an attitude of we don't have to dig and gouge for every single position, and we don't have to worry if it's a total disaster or if it doesn't work out. We can just go have fun.

"It's a terrible trip home when you don't run good at Sonoma. We don't have to worry about that now."

The changing in philosophies seems to be working for Earnhardt, who surprised himself by flashing speed in practice Friday.

An Earnhardt victory would certainly fit the narrative of Sonoma being a race filled with many unexpected twists-and-turns. But that's part of the unpredictability where recent winners include Martin Truex Jr. (2013), Bowyer (2012) and Kasey Kahne (2009), while stars like Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have yet to win on a road course.

"It's been such a different race the last five or six years when you look at the winners," said 2010 Sonoma champion Jimmie Johnson. "People you might not put into that road course ringer category, myself included. I won, Martin, Clint, Kasey Kahne was in there at some point. More traditional oval guys, so I think this is the hardest race to pick yet. Then when you add the fuel strategy that typically plays in that shakes it up as well.

"I could probably pick a favorite, but I don't think there is a safe bet on a winner. I think there are 20, 25 cars that could win here."

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