Friday 5: Return of Sonoma’s Carousel will challenge Cup drivers

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A new wrinkle to Sonoma Raceway could make a significant impact in Sunday’s Cup race.

The addition of the Carousel — a half-mile section that includes a blind and sweeping left-hand turn — is a part of the track that no active Cup driver will have run a Cup car on until today. The Carousel was last used for Cup in 1997.

Martin Truex Jr. said in a media release this week that the addition of the carousel is a “game changer.”

Alex Bowman is among those drivers who have tested the course on a simulator and says “getting off the Carousel seemed tougher than I thought it would be. I think it’s going to be interesting.”

It won’t only be drivers who are challenged with the change to the track.

Previously, the track’s key areas were right-hand turns — Turn 4 that led to a straightaway, Turn 7 that provided a passing zone and Turn 11, the hairpin. Crew chiefs were focused on how the car handled in those and other right-hand turns and worried less about the left-hand turns on the course because they did not lead to such key passing zones.

Now, the Carousel adds a key left-hand turn and can set a driver up for a passing zone in Turn 7.

“The Carousel definitely changes things up for us, a little bit,” Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “The other important part about the Carousel, it appears that Turn 7 could potentially be a good passing zone, so kind of being somewhat good through the Carousel I think may be important as it leads to a potential passing zone.

“That Carousel corner is quite a bit different mindset of what you would typically work on at Sonoma, where you would ty to work for drive and maybe not as much lateral grip. The Carousel is going to call for more lateral grip. The things that you do for Turn 11, Turn 7 and Turn 4 like we typically work on, will be different then maybe what the car is asking for.”

2. Sonoma strategy

Another key decision for crew chiefs will be when to pit. The course is now 2.52 miles (it was 1.99 miles without the carousel). With the longer lap, the number of laps is now 90 (it was 110 laps last year). Even with fewer laps, the race will actually be longer this year (226.8 miles compared to 218.9 miles last year).

With the focus on pitting under green at the road course since a driver won’t lose a lap, many teams pitted shortly before the end of stage 1 and stage 2 last year. Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. both pitted from the lead before the end of a stage and finished 1-2 with Truex winning last year’s race.

Both did that because they already had wins and were focused on victories instead of acquiring stage points.

With only six winners this season, several playoff spots appear as if they will be determined by points. Will crew chiefs of winless drivers this season give up stage points to go for a victory or seek those stage points?

Denny Hamlin, who stayed out and won stage 2 of last year’s race finished 10th. Chase Elliott, who finished second in stage 2, placed fourth in the race. No other driver who finished in the top 10 in stage 2 finished better than eighth in the race.

So the question will be for many teams — do you want points or the chance at a win?

3. Is it time to run the boot at Watkins Glen?

It’s a question that often is asked but with Charlotte Motor Speedway going to the Roval for its October race and Sonoma Raceway bringing back the Carousel, is it time to consider a change at Watkins Glen? Or is it better to leave that track alone?

There are various issues to consider but one key one would be if adding the Boot would provide any additional passing zones. The belief is that with the Carousel at Sonoma, it will create another passing zone and give fans more excitement.

Kevin Harvick, who suggested to Speedway Motorsports Inc. President and CEO Marcus Smith that his company bring back the Carousel at Sonoma, also wonders about changes at Watkins Glen.

“I think Watkins Glen could do the same thing,” Harvick said earlier this month at Michigan International Speedway. “It seems like SMI is more aggressive in these types of situations with changing things up and trying new things and doing things more on the edge of not knowing what the outcome is going to be.”

It is worth pondering if adding the Boot and making a lap longer at Watkins Glen would be best for NASCAR.

4. Xfinity regulars get extra track time

Three Xfinity Series regulars will compete at Sonoma with that series off this weekend.

Justin Haley will make his second career Cup start this weekend, driving for Spire Motorsports.

Cole Custer and Noah Gragson will each compete in the K&N Pro Series West race at the track Saturday.

5. Enjoy it now … 

The Xfinity Series is off this weekend and then races 15 consecutive races before its next weekend off in October.