For most of NASCAR’s history, the premiere class raced two or three road course races per year. From 1963 through 1985 most of these were run at Riverside International Speedway. In 1986, Watkins Glen International rejoined the schedule after hosting a few races in the 1950s and 60s. But NASCAR always had an eye on California.
Riverside was being encroached upon by real estate development, losing its battle in 1988 with a final race held on June, 12. Without missing a beat, NASCAR moved the California road course date north to the wine region of Sonoma county on a track then-named Sears Point International Raceway.
Sears Point became Infineon Raceway and then Sonoma Raceway in 2014. No matter what it’s been called, Sonoma has been an important venue. In a sport that mostly ignored road course racing for most of its existence, Sonoma and Watkins Glen carried the banner until 2018 when Charlotte Motor Speedway made a very bold move, improved their infield road course and added a third venue.
Sonoma was one of several tracks forced to skip their 2020 race because of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, but it returned last year as part of a record seven road courses schedule. In the interim, the track lost none of its luster despite missing a season and seeing wildfires sweep through the region.
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For the moment, Sonoma and Watkins Glen continue to hold a special place because they are the road courses on which Cup drivers have the most experience – and experience is critical when drivers are forced outside of their element.
That is about the only thing these two grand old tracks have in common, however. Sonoma has always been a technical course that required specialized skill. Watkins Glen can be thought of as the superspeedway of road courses with long sweeping corners that generate more speed.
Sonoma has gone through a few changes. A pair of interior hairpin corners were removed from the layout in the late 1990s to shorten the track to 1.99-miles, but the when the reigns of Speedway Motorsports Incorporated were passed to Bruton Smith’s son Marcus Smith, the tricky carousel returned in 2019. The remeasured course is now 2.52-miles long. The lap count dropped from 110 laps to 90 to keep the race distance at 350 kilometers.
Road courses can be among the easiest to handicap. In the past five years, four drivers have stood head and shoulders above the competition. Chase Elliott has the most wins among active drivers with seven, but has not yet found Victory Lane in Sonoma. In the past five years, he also has the most top-fives on this course type with 11. Denny Hamlin lands second on the top-five list with nine, while Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have eight each.
Two other drivers came on strong in recent seasons with five top-fives each. Ryan Blaney won the 2018 race on the Charlotte Roval when Truex and Jimmie Johnson spun in the final chicane, but he was solidly third before that.
The most interesting newcomer to the front of the road course field is Kyle Larson. All three of his career road course wins came last year and in two of those events, he held off Elliott. The battle might have also played out that way on the Roval if Elliott had not been intentionally wrecked earlier in the event by Harvick. The Larson vs. Elliott rivalry could turn out to be one of the most interesting developments in the coming years.
The biggest play next year on road courses will be betting on top-five finishes. Several of the Young Guns had strong showings last year with Ross Chastain finishing seventh at Sonoma. Chase Briscoe did not fare as well at Sonoma, but he had three top-10s in the remaining six road races. Likewise Tyler Reddick struggled in California, but amassed four top-10s on the track type.
June 12, Save Mart 350k
Kyle Busch: 4 top-fives; 7 top-10s; 8 lead lap finishes
Martin Truex Jr.: 3 top-fives; 3 lead lap finishes
Denny Hamlin: 5 top-10s; 8 lead lap finishes
Kyle Larson: 2 top-10s; 3 lead lap finishes
Ryan Blaney: 2 top-10s; 2 lead lap finishes
Kevin Harvick: 15 lead lap finishes (and 19 of 20)
Kurt Busch: 12 lead lap finishes
Brad Keselowski: 10 lead lap finishes
Joey Logano: 10 lead lap finishes
Aric Almirola: 7 lead lap finishes
Chris Buescher: 5 lead lap finishes (all)
Daniel Suarez: 4 lead lap finishes (all)
Alex Bowman: 3 lead lap finishes
Erik Jones: 3 lead lap finishes
2007 Toyota / SaveMart 350k: Juan Pablo Montoya
Road Courses: Sonoma, COTA, Daytona road, Road America, Watkins Glen, Indy road, Charlotte road
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Atlanta Motor Speedway
Auto Club Speedway
Bristol Motor Speedway (dirt)
Charlotte Motor Speedway (oval)
Dover International Speedway
Daytona International Speedway
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
World Wide Technology Raceway