SAN FRANCISCO — It’s time to turn right again.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series invades Sonoma Raceway’s road course Friday through Sunday, with practice Friday, qualifying Saturday and the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday.
The NASCAR West Series qualifying and race are also Saturday, including local favorite Jim Inglebright, making an action-packed weekend for race fans.
Clint Bowyer is the defending Cup champion in the Wine Country, with Kurt Busch winning the 350 two years ago.
NASCAR has instituted a new road-course qualifying format this season, with practice times dictating which group of five or six cars will qualify together, with the fastest cars in practice qualifying together last, making even more excitement for racing fans.
Each similarly timed car will hit the course 5 seconds apart.
At a press conference in San Francisco, Thursday, Cup drivers Busch and David Gilliland, along with car owner Michael Waltrip, chimed in on the new qualifying format and how much they like coming to race in the Bay Area.
“I was definitely eager to get here and it’s a track that was a big difference maker in my career,” Busch said. “Sonoma is my sentimental favorite track. I just enjoy coming out here with the different pace of life in California and coming back toward home. I grew up in Las Vegas. Over the years, the track’s been nice to me. I’ve won in a Southwest Tour car and in a Cup car. It’s definitely a track on the map that I look forward to getting to.”
Gilliand, who won the West Series race in the Wine Country in 2012, is in favor of the road course qualifying change.
“Qualifying here has been tough in the past because you go out there and you have one lap and a lot of opportunities to make mistakes,” he said. “With the European-style qualifying, I’ve been doing it for the last couple of years in the K&N Series, if you do make a mistake, or you don’t nail it on the first lap, you’ve got the second one. It gives you a second chance. . . . It’s going to be exciting.”
Waltrip’s take on the format was similar to Gilliland’s.
“Qualifying at a road course is so difficult,” the co-owner of the cars driven by Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. said. “It’s going to be interesting to see if the pole sitter is going to be able to get it done in one lap or get it done in a couple. There’s definitely a twist to qualifying this year that I’m sure the boys are looking forward to.
“It’s nice to know that you have the insurance of having another lap if something doesn’t go right the first time. The guys put it on the edge anyway, but with that knowledge of the insurance of being able to do it again, we’ll probably see a track record with the cars going really fast.”
With the road course comes plenty of contact, and both Busch and Gilliland know that’s part of the track’s nature.
“Sonoma is always circled on our calendar. It’s a special place. Just like Kurt said, growing up on the West Coast (Riverside), it’s a great time for us. I’ve been coming here ever since I wasn’t even able to get in the pits, running around on the hills, getting dirty. It’s just a great track . . . and it’s a great race. You can get into someone’s bumper. It gets pretty physical out there.”
And with the new Gen-6 car making its road-course debut, Busch is a little nervous about how it will handle Sonoma’s 1.99-mile, 12-turn layout.
“There’s two programs that we set up,” he said. “One is a more aggressive-style setup and one’s more conservative. We’ve already challenged our guys back at the shop to come up with setups and the direction we’re going to go. Now it’s going to be the guys at the track that will have to manually change the car over and we’re going to do that with quick decisions after the first third of practice (Friday).
“It’s a tough balance. The good teams will know exactly how to attack qualifying. Then once Saturday rolls around, you already have to have your decision. If you’re going after a two stop race or a three stop race. The new car, new tires, the new qualifying, it’s all a little bit different. So (Friday) we’ll get more answers.”