Tyler Reddick looks to defend road course record as Cup Series heads to Sonoma

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 12: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Onx Homes/Renu Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 12, 2022 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Road course racing has been a highlight of the NASCAR schedule of late, with high-intensity, contact-filled racing. That continues at Sonoma in northern California with Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Last year’s winner Daniel Suarez has high hopes of a repeat. He scored his first win in NASCAR’s top series at the track last year, also becoming the Cup Series’ first Mexican winner, and is looking to score his second career win at the same place.

“Of course we can,” Suarez said. “We have a very good road course program. You saw how fast we were at COTA. We are going out to Sonoma with plans to sit on the pole, lead every lap and win the race.”

“Every time we head to a road course, whether it’s Sonoma or somewhere else, I am excited. I feel at home and I am excited to go back to a place where we had great memories last time and hopefully we can repeat it.”

If Suarez can win on Sunday, it would be the first win this season for Trackhouse Racing. Despite finding victory lane three times last season, the Pitbull-backed organization hasn’t been able to convert any of six top-fives into a win.

But he’ll have to contend with 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick, who’s fast positioning himself as NASCAR’s current road course ace.

Reddick’s won three times in the Next Gen car on road courses, including back-to-back races at Road America and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. His most recent road win was also the most recent road course race, at Circuit of The Americas.

Compare that to Chase Elliott, who’s gone ten road course races without winning once. The former road course ace has still finished in the top five in five of those races, but he hasn’t been able to convert a strong run to a victory.

To be fair, he was out of the car for one of those ten races, still recovering from an early-season snowboarding accident when the series headed to COTA earlier this year. Elliott is at least racing again at Sonoma, back in the car after a one-week suspension also left him sidelined last week at Gateway.

Dark-horse picks for Sonoma, though, might be Chris Buescher and Michael McDowell, who finished second and third at the track last year respectively. Buescher has six straight top-tens on road courses, while McDowell carries the momentum of an impressive ninth-place finish at Gateway following an early spin.

A spate of penalties have put some drivers in bad positions as the Playoff picture becomes clearer. Chase Briscoe and Erik Jones have both suffered in the points after severe penalties involving Next-Gen car parts. Briscoe now approaches the Playoff picture with a must-win mindset, he said.

“At this point, it’s all about winning,” he said. “We always show up to win, this just gives us an opportunity to change up our strategy to make it happen. It opens the door for us to pit off strategy or make some different calls when it comes to what we do on a stop.”

One driver getting extra seat time at the track is Aric Almirola, who will be driving in the Xfinity Series race as well.

“Of all the road courses that we run, it’s my favorite,” he said. “I run the best there, so having the opportunity to run an Xfinity car there, something that is new for that series, I just thought that it would be a great opportunity and something for me to go and do.”

As for learning about the track, Almirola doesn’t expect to get a major advantage since the Xfinity and Next Gen cars are just so different.

“I think it is slightly helpful just to get some more reps at the road courses because, with only 20 minutes of practice, you don’t get a lot of laps in the Cup car. So just being able to pick up little things here and there on the racetrack maybe helps a little bit.”

Conversely, Martin Truex highlighted controversy surrounding contact-filled road course restarts. To him, next to superspeedway pack racing, “road-course restarts have become the next-craziest part of what we do.”

“Looking back at last year,” he elaborated “we crashed on one of the restarts with guys going five- and six-wide and guys trying to make up eight to 10 spots in one corner. I think that’s the biggest change in our sport the last few years.”

The race holds sentimental meaning to Kevin Harvick, who’s making his final start in his home state of California on Sunday.

“We’ve won a few races there and I think going up there and seeing all of the California fans for the last time is obviously something you’ve got to stop and pay attention to. I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “It’ll be a big week to take it all in.”

Of note, Noah Gragson will not be competing in the No. 42 Legacy Motor Club car after suffering concussion-like symptoms after a hard crash at Gateway following a brake failure. Truck Series driver Grant Enfinger will be subbing instead, making his first Cup start.

Xfinity Series races in wine country for the first time

AJ Allmendinger is looking to prove his road course mettle against NASCAR’s best in Saturday’s DoorDash 250 at Sonoma Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

He’s just one of seven Cup Series regulars competing in the lower series event, including last year’s winner Daniel Suarez, and previous winer Kyle Larson. Also entered are Ross Chastain, Ty Gibbs, Ty Dillon, AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola.

Almirola won twice in the Cup Series and eleven times in the Xfinity Series on road courses, and Sonoma is a clear favorite.

“Sonoma is always a special, important weekend for me,” Allmendinger said. “It’s near where I grew up, and I still get to see a lot of friends and family there.”

Despite that, though, he hasn’t managed to finish well at the track, with an average finish of just 23.5.

“Quite honestly, it’s a racetrack that I don’t have a very good average finish,” he acknowledged. “I’ve felt like I’ve always been fast there, but it hasn’t worked out.”

“Being able to run both races, I’m really looking forward to it,” he added. “Sonoma is a race track I’ve always wanted to win at, knowing it’s my home racetrack and I would be able to do that in front of a lot of friends and family. Hopefully, we can go back there and have some success to keep building on our program.”

But defending Xfinity Series road course winner Cole Custer will have something to say for Cup Series interlopers.

Custer, who scored his first-ever Xfinity Series road course win last week at Portland, said that he’s “excited to head to another road course this weekend and go for another win.” And he knows how to get around Sonoma.

“Sonoma is a cool track, but it’s one of those places where you have to learn that you can’t overdrive it,” he explained. “If you can get into the corner good, that means a lot at any road course, but especially Sonoma. The moment you start overdriving it and missing corners, you put yourself in a bad position.”

“It not only makes you lose time, but you’re also wearing out your tires. It’ll really hurt you. Sonoma is all about trying to manage your tires and being there at the end. As a driver, you have to be disciplined.”

NASCAR Next Gen turns heads in France

Sonoma’s not the only road course for NASCAR this weekend, of note. The 24-hour race, beginning Saturday (4 p.m. CET / 10 a.m. ET on MotorTrend, MotorTrend+, and Radio Le Mans), may have NASCAR in its own class, but the heavy stock car has already outpaced GTE sports cars on the track.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 07: The #24 NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet ZL1 driven by Jimmie Johnson, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller drives during practice for the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe June 04, 2023 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Toyota/Save Mart 350
The Place: Sonoma Raceway
The Date: Sunday, June 11
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,054,721
TV: FOX, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 218.9 miles (110 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 25),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 55), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 110)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: DoorDash 250
The Place: Sonoma Raceway
The Date: Saturday, June 10
The Time: 8 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,545,934
TV: FS1, 7:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 156.95 miles (79 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 20),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 45), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 79)

Owen Johnson