By Cole Cusumano
It’s been nearly two years since the NASCAR Cup Series was California dreamin’ in wine country. For the first time since 2019, the sport’s best return to Sonoma Raceway and will indulge in their third road course tasting of the season with hints of uncertainty.
After having the luxury of practice the past two weeks, the Cup Series is reverting back to the new normal of learning once the green flag waves. While many have become complacent with the pandemic procedures, there’s been outspoken buzz among teams criticizing the sanctioning body’s decision to proceed without any track time until the Toyota / Save Mart 350 — and for good reason.
Sure, the variable of 714 days passing since a majority of the field turned laps at the 2.52-mile track plays a role, but throwing in the fact they’ll be running a new rules package presents another set of questions. The 750-horsepower setup remains intact, but NASCAR made the decision to switch to the low-downforce after outcry from fans dating back to 2019.
In all actuality, this shouldn’t affect what knowledge teams have of the 12-turn road course or how the cars handle, but it should condense the racing based off what’s been displayed with this package in 2021. Regardless, it’s understandable why drivers would like to get a feel for their rides outside of green-flag conditions.
Another thing worth noting is there will be 10 drivers out of the 37-car field who’ve never turned at Sonoma, which should make for an interesting spectacle on Sunday to say the least.
As far as what themes to keep an eye on in Napa Valley — Can Hendrick Motorsports sustain their pace? Who has the best shot at toppling them? Which teams need to kick it into gear with 11 races remaining in the regular season?
NASCAR Cup Series
It’s not a stretch to say HMS is currently the best team in the sport. Coming off another dominant performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway, all but 27 laps were led by the Chevy stable en route to the organization’s third consecutive victory and record breaking 269th all-time. Kyle Larson established himself as the early Championship favorite, while all four cars placed top-five for the second time in three weeks.
In what Rick Hendrick deemed the most talented crop of drivers he’s ever had competing at the same time, you get the sense the winningest team in NASCAR isn’t done yet. The reigning Champion, Chase Elliott, has finally caught fire and rides a five-race top-10 streak into Sonoma, where he’s considered the favorite, having won five of the last six road courses.
Additionally, Hendrick Motorsports as a whole has proven to be contenders on a weekly basis with the No. 48 team’s ability to capitalize and William Byron’s consistency placing him second in the standings. While it would come as no surprise to see the winningest organization continue its torrid pace, there may have been an inclination in the Coca-Cola 600 of who can spoil the party.
Kyle Busch broke up what was shaping up to be the Chevy stable’s second 1-2-3-4 finish in three weeks by serving as the only opposing challenger in Charlotte. With evident frustration in his post-race interview, the two-time Champion could be poised for a day of redemption in California. Over the last five races at Sonoma, he has a win, runner-up his last outing and hasn’t placed lower than seventh.
If not Busch, his teammate Martin Truex Jr. is a worthy adversary. The 2017 Champion has dominated the last two races in Napa Valley and is looking to extend his win streak to three. However, he has been on a backslide since emerging victorious at Darlington Raceway, failing to place higher than 19th since then.
The field against Hendrick Motorsports won’t be the only battle to keep an eye on in Sonoma. With 11 races remaining in the regular season, the pursuit of the postseason is in full effect. Although the drivers sitting inside the top-16 haven’t been contested as of late, road course racing has a history of providing parity and diversity among the competition.
California’s own, Tyler Reddick, continues to excel after clicking off his fifth top-10 in six weeks. Advancing two spots from his 15th position after Charlotte, the 25-year-old has seemingly turned around his once abysmal road racing program and could be a dark horse in his home state.
NorCal native Matt DiBenedetto is in need of a good run at his home track. Stagnantly sitting 17th in the standings the last three weeks and 31 points out, the driver of the No. 21 hasn’t finished higher than 18th since notching his season-best fourth-place at Kansas Speedway. The good news for the hometown hero is that in his last outing at Sonoma, he scored a career-best fourth driving for Leavine Family Racing.
Trending on Twitter: Ben Rhodes makes his NASCAR Cup Series debut driving the No. 77 for Spire Motorsports in wine country.
As NASCAR makes its return to Sonoma Raceway for the first time since 2019, there’s no telling what to expect with a new rules package and a relatively inexperienced field. Regardless, the 2.52-mile track has a reputation for producing great racing and it will be refreshing to see 15,000 fans in attendance. The Toyota / Save Mart 350 airs on June 6 at 4 p.m. ET on FS1.