Drivers discuss challenges of passing, pit strategy at Sonoma Raceway

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Track position, track position, track position.

That’s the common theme expressed by Sprint Cup drivers this week heading into the season’s first visit to a road course this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.

Track position can be the key in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 because there are so few passing zones and the 12-turn, 1.99-mile track is not as fast as Watkins Glen International.

Because there are so few natural passing opportunities at Sonoma, drivers have a tendency to create their own. In recent years, this has caused road course racing to be looked at by some as the new form of short-track racing.

“The restarts can be crazy because I don’t feel like there’s as much ‘road-course etiquette’ as there used to be,” said Matt Kenseth in a team release. “Everywhere seems to be a passing zone as guys are fighting for track position wherever they can get it.”

This leads to contact.

An average of 2.6 cautions the past five years at Sonoma have been for multi-car accidents.

Once a driver gets where they’re going, the track turns into one that requires “finesse” on the drivers part, according to AJ Allmendinger.

“You hear it from the first lap … to the last lap when the checkered flag falls,” Allmendinger said. “Everybody talks about forward drive and not burning the rear tires off. It’s all about finesse. There have been times late in the run there where you don’t even get hardly wide open.”

Allmendinger says Watkins Glen requires more use of the bumper than Sonoma.

“At Sonoma you have got to bounce off each other when you get to (Turns) 11 and 7A there,” Allmendinger said. “It is more like a short track there, but in the end track position is so critical and making sure you put tires on at the right point.”

Ryan Newman says it’s a “premium” to get forward drive off a corner. The last part of the track where this comes into play is Turn 11 – the “hairpin turn.”

“I like braking into Turn 11,” Newman said. “It is usually a lot of fun and a great place to pass. You can get a lot out of it, if you do it right.”

The ability to pass feeds directly into a team’s strategy of whether to pit, which leads to fuel mileage decisions like the one that gave Carl Edwards the win at Sonoma on 2014.

“You have to get that balance of being able to brake hard, being fast in the slow corners, get your gearing right (and) your fuel mileage has to be right,” Edwards said in a release. “You have to have luck. Last year with our win, the caution came out just when we needed it and that really put us in position to win.

“It’s tough to get it all right.”