By GREG BEACHAM
The Associated Press
SONOMA, Calif. — The Cup Series drivers had a rare break from their grinding schedule last week, and they’re returning to competition at a NASCAR stop that sometimes feels like a vacation.
Most drivers have spent the week enjoying wine tasting sessions and extravagant meals at the wineries and restaurants nestled in Northern California’s beautiful rolling hills. They’re sleeping in luxury hotels instead of their usual luxury motor homes. Across the paddock, everybody seems to be in a good mood.
“Well, wait until Sunday,” points leader Joey Logano said with a smirk.
All that comfort and relaxation will be forgotten when the season resumes on a track with a high degree of difficulty and potential for frustration. The first road course race of the season already challenges drivers with its elevation changes, and it got even trickier with a new layout this weekend: Sonoma is celebrating its 50th anniversary by reincorporating “The Carousel,” a wicked elevation-changing turn, for the first time in a NASCAR race since 1997.
An element of the unknown is usually a boost to entertainment value in motor sports, and the drivers are as curious as everybody else to see what will happen when the green flag drops. Most drivers are excited about it, even after spending the past two days furiously trying to figure out the best way to handle the Carousel — and whether they can go two-wide and pass in that stretch.
“It’s obviously more turns now, and that makes it more likely we’ll get a timely caution to shake up the race,” Clint Bowyer said. “But nobody really knows what it will mean.”
Yet nobody will be surprised if the season’s best drivers to date have more success in Sonoma.
Kyle Busch has already won four times this year, while Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski have three victories apiece. Truex is the defending champion at Sonoma, and Busch — his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate — has won twice here.
“It’s certainly interesting to have the new layout,” Busch said. “This place is always a challenge to pass at, and now I feel like there’s only two passing corners now, where before there might have been more.”
More things to watch from wine country:
— LARSON LEADS: Kyle Larson will start on the pole for the third consecutive year in Sonoma, but he finished 26th and 14th in those previous two races. The Northern California native has never finished better than 12th on his home track, and he didn’t sound extraordinarily confident about his chances after winning the pole: “I feel like each year I’ve qualified here, I went really well, but made a lot of mistakes and knew there were a lot of opportunities for me to clean up my mistakes.”
— TRACK EVOLUTION: The Carousel addition has forced the drivers to learn on the fly, but NASCAR is improvising as well. After drivers repeatedly scattered dirt across the track while running wide on Turn 5 during practice Friday, NASCAR worked overnight to add an asphalt curb where the dirt had been. “I’m so glad they made that adjustment,” Ty Dillon said. “I’m not going to run on it [in qualifying], but I think people will use it a lot tomorrow.”
— GOLDEN CHANCE: California natives Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick haven’t won yet this season, but they’ve got reason to be optimistic. Harvick won at Sonoma in 2017 and has four top-10 finishes here in his last five starts. Johnson hasn’t won anywhere in more than two years, but the seven-time champ starts 11th today at the track where he won in 2010.
— BOOGITY BYE: For those watching at home, the Fox telecast is likely to be a lengthy farewell to Darrell Waltrip, who is retiring from his commentary job after the race. The Hall of Fame driver has been involved in NASCAR since 1972, and he has been a prominent broadcaster since 2001, becoming a fixture in the sport’s public perception.