Five things to watch in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

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Sunday’s Sprint Cup race will be scheduled to conclude after 110 laps, but history shows the winning move likely will occur much earlier – and probably not behind the wheel.

Road courses also add a strategy-laden layer to NASCAR, and it’s been as evident in the past eight editions of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. Last year, Carl Edwards made  his final stop on Lap 70 of 110, stretching his fuel tank for the final 40 circuits around the 12-turn, 1.99-mile circuit.

Edwards made only two stops in scoring the first road-course victory of his career, and that’s been the pattern at the track nestled in the rolling hills of California wine country. In the past eight Sonoma races, winners have averaged 2.4 pit stops, and no victor has made more than three. On average, the winner’s final stop has occurred with 40 laps remaining.

But while Edwards’ win reinforced that statistic, there also were signs in last year’s race that strategies were evolving. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third despite making five pit stops, and NBC Sports analyst Steve Letarte, who called that race as Earnhardt’s crew chief, said this week on NASCAR America (video clip above) that this year’s winner could make three or more pit stops because tire management has become a more critical factor.

A decrease of 125 horsepower in the 2015 Sprint Cup engine should increase fuel mileage, though, and also possibly change the equation.

“The majority of the time, two stops has been the better way to find Victory Lane,” Kurt Busch said after qualifying. “Last year, a lot of teams jumped off of that two-stop strategy and went to the three-stop, because of the tire wear.

“This year, I think the tire is slightly different. They were trying to bring back a tire with more tread on it so that it would last the full stint. And we’re still in that question mark zone. Do you go on two (stops) or do you go on three? And the fuel mileage is definitely helping us this year with the decrease in horsepower, to go on two stops. The problem is, when you have somebody that’s committed to three, and there is a group of them that are on the three-stop-strategy, it’s amazing how many weird lines you take on restarts, and you’re jumping over guys and going through guys, and it turns into a very aggressive race.”

Pole-sitter A.J. Allmendinger believes the race’s outcome could hinge on the timing of caution flags.

“The strategy changes a lot just because the tires are so important,” he said. “So, if you run 10 or 15 laps and the caution comes out, more than likely you’re probably going to pit just because tires are that critical.”

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

Hometown hero: It already has been an emotional week for Jeff Gordon, who started his trip to Northern California with a visit to his childhood go-kart track in the nearby town of Rio Linda for the first time in 31 years. The native of nearby Vallejo, Calif., is NASCAR’s all-time winner on road courses with nine victories, but it’s been nine years since the most recent triumph at Sonoma.

Gordon has been known for his sense of sentimental timing during a 22-year career. If he punctuates his final season by punching a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth and ending a 22-race winless drought in front of a large crowd of family and friends at the track nearest to his adolescent roots, it would be among his most storied accomplishments.

Eleventh heaven? The last 10 races at Sonoma have yielded 10 winners. Who’s next? You could start at the front with Allmendinger, a road-course ace who broke through for his inaugural Sprint Cup win last August at Watkins Glen International.

Don’t overlook Matt Kenseth (starting third), Kyle Larson (fourth) or Brad Keselowski (10th), either.

Smoke signals: Tony Stewart already is on record that a win won’t make him feel much better about the worst season of his NASCAR career, but starting seventh – his best qualifying effort in five years here – surely must boost his spirits.

The three-time series champion, who has one top 10 in 15 races, has the third-best driver rating (98.8) at Sonoma and two wins (though the most recent was a decade ago).

New to the road: Jeb Burton, Matt DiBenedetto and Trevor Bayne will be making their Sprint Cup debuts at Sonoma, and seven drivers will be making their second starts there. That’s a raft of inexperience on a highly technical course whose layout engenders mistakes under pressure from aggressive veterans – and there will be many Sunday.