Sonoma Story Lines

David Gilliland

David Gilliland catches air during Saturday's qualifying session at Sonoma Raceway. (Photo: Getty Images)

SONOMA, Calif. - To pit or not to pit, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer with older tires, the slings and arrows from those with fresher tires. Or to take arms with fresher tires in the middle of the pack against a sea of troubles.

OK, Shakespeare never had to ponder such thoughts, but crew chiefs will during today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway.

The key question will be when to pit and how often in the 110-lap race on this twisting and tormenting road course. 

“You’re always in an awkward position with pit strategy,’’ said Brian Vickers, who starts eighth. “You’re right on that window between two and three stops.’’

Adding to the dilemma is tire wear. Goodyear has a new tire for this track this and teams report that the falloff from the beginning of a run is significant.

So, a crew chief must decide if they want to be near the front but on older tires or if they want their driver further back in the pack where anything can happen but be on fresher tires.

“That’s what makes this place so fun is you can’t just flog the tires and run a flying lap every lap and expect to do well,’’ said Tony Stewart, who starts 21st. “You have to budget your tires. It is a challenge. 

“There’s times when you want to be that guy on older tires and up front so you don’t have to worry about the chaos on the restarts. Then there’s time when you want to be that guy who has fresh tires that might restart 10th or 12th with 10 or 15 laps to go and be able to charge your way up through there.’’

Clint Bowyer, who held on with older tires to win this race two years ago, said he’ll never forget what it was like sliding around on those final laps.

“It was one challenge after another for so many laps,’’ he said.

It’s what someone could face today.

That’s just among the story lines at Sonoma.

Restart Madness

For as taxing as Sonoma’s technical course is, some drivers say the double-file restarts are the most difficult part of the race. After crossing the start/finish line, drivers soon have a left-hand turn that goes uphill to a blind right-hand turn. Contact can be common in these areas and in the high-braking corners of Turn 7 and Turn 11.

“I think we know that there is going to be chaos,’’ said Jimmie Johnson, who starts 22nd, about restarts. “In (Turns) 7 and 11, you go in there and you just put your head against the back of the headrest waiting to get drilled from behind.’’

Drivers often have a short-track mentality at Sonoma and that leads to the contact.

“Your fenders don’t matter as much as Watkins Glen, so people seem to use them up a little bit more,’’ said AJ Allmendinger, who starts second. 

Middle of the Pack

Keep an eye on what is happening behind the leaders.

Marcos Ambrose, who had never started worse than eighth at Sonoma, qualified 23rd. Last year’s winner, Martin Truex Jr., starts 18th. Clint Bowyer, who won this race two years ago, starts 25th. Jeff Gordon starts 15th. He’s started worse only one other time in 21 previous races at Sonoma.

“I made one mistake off of (Turn) 4 and I think ultimately that cost us,’’ Gordon said. “The question and concern for us is how all these guys went out the second time and went so much faster. We’ll just get it ready to race. We’ve got a great race car.’’

Larson’s Weekend

Kyle Larson’s week started with him becoming the first person to receive a key to his hometown of Elk Grove, Calif., and continued with Tony Stewart saying Larson would learn a lesson one way or another for blocking last weekend at Michigan. Things improved for Larson when he qualified third for today’s race and won Saturday’s K&N Pro Series West race. What will he do today?

“Hopefully, I can stay up there for a little bit,’’ Larson said. “I'm sure I will fall back some in the beginning, especially when the tires wear out. I just have to stick with it, not get frustrated. Try to give-and-take as much as I can to maintain track position ... keep all four tires on track. The goal is to get a top 10."

A Perfect 10?

There have been nine different winners in the last nine races at Sonoma starting with Tony Stewart in 2005. Since, the winners have been Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.

Will the streak continue?

Desperation

Some caution that the end of today’s race could become dicey especially if there is a driver or two still searching for their first win of the season near the front. There hasn’t been a new winner in the last three points races. Although 10 races remain after today, drivers looking for a win likely will be willing to take big chances. The question is if those chances pay off.

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