NASCAR drivers relishing chance to conquer 3 road courses

June 22, 2018 - 7:38 pm

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — As a born-and-bred Northern Californian, Kyle Larson is quite familiar with the numerous twists and 11 turns on the vaunted Sonoma Raceway road course.

That doesn't make him much better at navigating them in a stock car.

"Turn 1 up through the hill, all the way basically through Turn 4, I'm really good," the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said Friday. "Off of Turn 4, I struggle. (Turn) 7, I struggle. (Turn) 11, I struggle. Clint (Bowyer) is trying to teach me a little throttle control. That is where I lack. And then the S's, I'm decent at. And then Turn 11, I kind of (stink) again. Any corner where you have to slow down and speed back up, I tend to struggle at, so I've got to get better at that."

Larson isn't alone. Road course racing skills — such as the ability to turn right — are becoming more important in NASCAR. The circuit has three non-oval tracks on its schedule this season for the first time in 31 years, and many drivers would like to see more in the future.

"It's fun to get to do something totally different than (how) I grew up racing," Larson said. "A pavement oval is totally different than what I grew up doing, but a road course is way opposite. I enjoy it. I feel like I get better and better at it."

The challenge begins in wine country this weekend on the tight, technical road track that has bedeviled many NASCAR drivers over the years. After the annual stop at Watkins Glen's longer, faster road course in August, the drivers must figure out Charlotte Motor Speedway's new hybrid track dubbed the "roval" — a road course connected to its traditional oval — at a playoff race in September.

Kevin Harvick noted that as recently as 10 years ago, many NASCAR drivers and fans didn't enjoy racing on road courses. These days, he says, most drivers relish the chance to test the full measure of their abilities.

More turns lead to more strategic possibilities for the teams, along with more wear on their tires and brakes. Two-wide restarts can be pandemonium on the tight Sonoma track. It all adds up to a good chance Sunday for exciting racing, which is what everybody needs.

"I think driver means more than car at this particular race track," Denny Hamlin said. "The driver has so many inputs, from the wheel to the brake, clutch and gas and everything. We're doing so much within the lap. Different drivers' techniques come to the forefront, and that's why you see the winners here have really been the best of the best."

NASCAR is inextricably linked with oval racing, but the occasional monotony of the action can turn off casual racing fans, particularly on television. Road courses put a spotlight on the full measure of their driving skill — or sometimes the lack thereof.

Bowyer, who won at Sonoma in 2012 and finished second last year, has grown to love the challenges of the sharp corners, changing elevation and cramped racing in Sonoma.

"It is an acquired taste, just like the wine right down the street," Bowyer said with a laugh. "This place is a beast, and so is that wine the first time you try it. It's like, 'Damn, I don't know about all this.' Next thing you know, you're a little longer in the tooth, and you're like, 'Hey, let's go get some wine!' You have to be able to have fun on this racetrack. It is a challenge. Each and every corner is different. There is no perfect setup or perfect line."

Certain NASCAR drivers over the years have showed significantly superior technical acumen on road courses. Jeff Gordon, who grew up just down the road in Vallejo, won five times at Sonoma Raceway and four times at Watkins Glen, while Tony Stewart won eight times on the two tracks.

Among active drivers, Bowyer and Kurt Busch have posted the most consistent top-five finishes on road courses, while Harvick has won once on each track.

NASCAR teams have had an ambivalent relationship with road races for decades. Many teams frequently employed road course ringers such as Dan Gurney or Boris Said — drivers from outside the circuit hired to drive specifically on non-ovals.

The practice declined and disappeared in the early 21st century due to the importance of driver points in the overall Chase, forcing the regular drivers to improve their skills on the road courses.

And when they don't have track experience, they get it elsewhere: William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports' 20-year-old rookie driver, did six hours of simulator sessions this week to prepare himself for the Sonoma experience.

No matter their personal track record in Sonoma, it's tough to find a driver who doesn't enjoy the chance to do something different.

"I think it is a good product for our sport," Bowyer said. "I think we could do that at Road America (in Wisconsin) or Road Atlanta. ... I would like to see our sport go to some other venues and race in front of some new faces."

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