Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images
Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images

Sonoma’s twists present next road-course test for Next Gen car

The hillside layout of Sonoma Raceway will have plenty of new mixed with a dash of the familiar when the NASCAR Cup Series returns to wine country this weekend. Foremost among the new is another road-course application for the Next Gen car, which will make just its second appearance at that track type this season.

The seventh-generation racer will get another test of its durability and performance in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 (4 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM). Early expectations assert that the style of racing may mimic that from earlier this year at Circuit of The Americas, the 20-turn twist palace in Austin, Texas.

“I would expect it to be just as aggressive. These cars allow us to do that,” said Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch. “Everybody knows that all of these cars are the same – they all come from the same place. It’s up to you to make it go, and so you are going to push the car’s limits.”

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Those limits will get their pushing on a revised layout that has some recent familiarity. For the last two Sonoma races – 2019 and 2021, with a lost year in between because of the COVID-19 pandemic – the event was contested on the longer 2.52-mile configuration with the sweeping carousel. This year, the Cup Series will revert to the 1.99-mile short course used from 1998-2018, incorporating the chute spanning Turns 4 and 7.

Should the limit-pushing turn into actual pushing on the shorter circuit, the flex of the composite body panels should absorb some of the framming and bamming.

“It can take a beating,” said William Byron, who participated in a Goodyear tire test at the Watkins Glen International road course last month. “I think Watkins Glen is going to be really fast. You’re gonna have a hard time setting guys up, but I think if you get close, you’ll see big dive bombs. But yeah, Sonoma is a perfect track for this car – fall-off in the tires, but also really good brakes and really good transmission.”

Those beefed-up brakes and the transmission – changed with the new car to a five-speed sequential shift from the former H-pattern four-speed – should alter the shift rhythms and braking points that might be more customary to drivers. A handful of Cup Series drivers are double-dipping into the Camping World Truck Series for Saturday’s DoorDash 250 (7:30 p.m. ET) for extra track time – Alex Bowman, Harrison Burton, Austin Dillon, Ross Chastain and Busch among them.

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From that list, Bowman and Chastain figured most prominently in the Next Gen road-racing debut at COTA. Chastain bruised his way past both Bowman and AJ Allmendinger to emerge from a three-car dice on the final lap and secure his first Cup Series win. Bowman held on for second, but Allmendinger – who prevailed in last weekend’s Xfinity Series debut at Portland International Raceway – dropped to 33rd at the finish.

Bowman also challenged for the Camping World Trucks win at COTA, showing signs of growth in the road-racing category.

“I think that’s just going to continue to bring confidence to Sonoma,” No. 48 crew chief Greg Ives told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “Obviously we’re going into more right-hand turns than left-hand turns but ultimately, I think the confidence of the braking zones, confidence of this car and how hard you can drive it is something that really suits Alex’s style. That’s the number one thing I have to do is just put a solid car under him. He gets better throughout the whole race as laps go down, and he’s gonna be running out there trying to better his craft and hopefully we can come out of there with a win.

“But all in all, strategies and sometimes luck when those cautions fall and if you’re on pit road are not in the right spot helps, but if you have a fast car, it definitely makes it easier. And I think Alex puts a lot of emphasis on trying to go there with a lot of confidence and a lot of speed. So, looking forward to getting there for sure.”