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Motorsports: Larson, Hendrick Racing head to Sonoma on a roll

Motorsports: Larson, Hendrick Racing head to Sonoma on a roll

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When the Cup series lines up on the grid for this Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, the pole will be awarded by a complex NASCAR formula that since last year has taken the place of traditional qualifying laps — a precaution taken to reduce exposure among drivers and crew members during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

But don’t be surprised if the pole is awarded to the driver who has claimed it the hard way during the last three Cup races at Sonoma.

Kyle Larson has been so consistent in parking his car on the pole at the 2.5-mile, 12-turn road course that he deserves a nameplate for the spot.

NASCAR’s pole-awarding algorithm is weighted toward what a driver has done lately, and lately, no driver has done more than Larson.

The Elk Grove native capped off a dominant month of May by winning the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway last Sunday. It gave team owner Rick Hendrick an historic 269th Cup series win, surpassing the legendary Richard Petty.

The Charlotte win was Larson’s second in the Cup series this year, but his win tally could have easily been higher. At Circuit of the Americas in Austin, he was pressuring teammate Chase Elliott on the road course in a driving rain. Elliott was forced into an inevitable last pit stop when NASCAR prematurely ended the race because of unsafe conditions. That marked Larson’s third runner-up finish — in a month.

The NASCAR formula gave Larson the pole at Charlotte based on his earlier on-track performance, but his dominance on the superspeedway likely only boosted his stats. He won all three stages, posted fast laps and claimed the checkered flag, leaving nothing but tire tracks for everybody else.

His closest competition was his Hendrick Racing teammates, who finished second, fourth and fifth at Charlotte — a domination that began earlier in the month at Dover, where the four-car team swept the top four positions.

Hendrick believes Larson’s precise car control sets him apart from other drivers. It will take that kind of precise driving and patience to win at Sonoma Raceway, a track where mistakes are easy to make on blind corners and managing tire wear is a key to winning.

“Sonoma is a fun place, fun race track, a track that I’ve honestly struggled,” Larson said after his Coca-Cola 600 win at Charlotte Motor Speedway and before winning a World of Outlaws sprint car race the next night. “I’ve qualified really well but struggled in the races.”

Larson, who many believe was a better driver than the cars he had at Ganassi Racing, is hoping for a better outcome now that he has teamed up with Hendrick Motorsports. Plus, he added, “I’m excited to get home.”

But Larson, who currently sits second in the NASCAR championship battle behind the winless Denny Hamlin, should expect some tough competition from his teammates. Elliott is one of the Cup series’ best road racers, winning five of the last six that required turning right as well as left.

The Hendrick team has a strong notebook for Sonoma. No driver has claimed more Toyota/Save Mart 350s than the now-retired Jeff Gordon, who is still a presence at Hendrick Motorsports despite his broadcast commitments to FOX Sports.

If one team can challenge Hendrick, it is Joe Gibbs Racing. While Larson was winning three poles at Sonoma, Martin Truex Jr. was winning three Toyota/Save Mart 350s, including the last two in 2018 and 2019.

With three wins in 2021, Truex is the winningest driver in the Cup series so far this year. But May brought bad luck and every misfortune short of locusts and plague for the former Cup champion, who had finishes of 19th, 35th and 29th while Larson was running wild at the other end of the field.

If going back to a place where a driver has won gives them confidence, then Truex is looking for Sonoma to change his fortune.

“I’ve been waiting for a while to go back to Sonoma and try to get the three-peat,” said Truex, driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “I’m excited to hear that we’ll have fans in attendance.”

Due to pandemic-related crowd limits, Sonoma Raceway has sold all available tickets for the 90-lap Toyota/Save Mart 350. Mask wearing, social distancing, cashless transactions and other COVID-related protocols are in place to align with CDC and county health officials requirements.

Tickets are available for the 50-lap ARCA Menards West General Tire 200 on Saturday.

ARCA Menards Series a training ground for Cup

Jesse Love of Redwood City recalls taking his first laps around Sonoma Raceway in a Miata at the age of 10. After racing karts for a few years, he said, “My dad wanted me to get some laps in something bigger.”

Over the next few years, Love raced a Legends car on the 12-turn road course and returned to race in a pair of sports car events driving a Toyota.

“I won them all,” he recalled, making him undefeated at Sonoma Raceway.

But on Saturday, the now 15-year-old driver will face his biggest test at Sonoma — driving a full-sized stock car around the 2.5-mile road course in the ARCA Menards West General Tire 200.

If a 3,800-pound stock car had training wheels it would be in this series, the first step in a ladder system that enables drivers to climb toward NASCAR’s three national series.

“It’s an amazing step that puts drivers in the same kind of equipment they would drive in NASCAR,” said Bill McAnally, whose eight championships are more than any other car owner in the series and who has mentored dozens of drivers to reach the Camping World, Xfinity and Cup series.

“It teaches them about sway bars and spring rates and how to handle a boxy, heavy car. If they come out of other forms of racing, they won’t have the same experience.”

Love, one of four drivers McAnally is bringing to Sonoma Raceway for Saturday’s race, has already learned his lessons well. He is the ARCA Menards West defending champion, the youngest in series history, and is leading the points toward back-to-back titles — a feat McAnally has accomplished with two other drivers over the years.

“This series is huge to me and important to my development,” said Love, who also races in the ARCA Menards East series with Venturini Racing and with a Super Late Model team based in Wisconsin. “It’s teaching me how to race a heavy, high-horsepower car and I’ll run this series until I’m old enough to race in the truck series,” which for him is up to three years away.

Some veteran drivers occasionally use the ARCA Menards series to get better acquainted with a specific track — such as Cup regular Chase Briscoe, who is entered in Saturday’s race. But many drivers in the upper levels of NASCAR say they might not have reached stock car’s highest levels without the experience of racing with ARCA.

Ross Chastain, who replaced Larson at Ganassi Racing in 2020, contends his experience coming up through NASCAR’s lower series was critical to him having the skill to drive at the Cup level. Chastain, who started in the truck series in 2010 and the Xfinity series in 2014, said the experience “is everything to me. If I went straight to Cup, I would have failed. You can’t just show up. You need to keep learning.”

Chastain recalled that his first laps at Sonoma in 2019 were in an ARCA car.

“I caught a flight from St. Louis and showed up with about three hours of sleep,” he said. “It was tough and we were the slowest car out there, but we eventually figured things out.”

Chris Buescher, who won Xfinity and ARCA Menards championships before moving up to Cup with Roush Fenway Racing, contends “it takes three to four years to get prepared to go Cup racing,” making on-track experience in the feeder series valuable.

Buescher jumped directly into the ARCA Menards series after just a few races in a Late Model stock car “because those cars are so different and they didn’t teach me what I needed to learn.”

Series like ARCA give young talent valuable seat time, he noted, which is especially valuable in an era when drivers have no time to practice and teams at high levels are keeping an eye out for talent.

Buescher’s first laps at Sonoma were in a Cup car, and he prepared by spending hours in a simulator. “When we got to the track, we were four seconds slower,” he recalled, “which is a lot when you’re looking for tenths of a second.”

When the team got back to the shop, it discovered the simulator was set up for qualifying and all the laps were on fresh tires.

“Now, we are more realistic about racing at Sonoma and we have definitely gotten better,” Buescher said. “But I think with seven road races on the schedules, I love it and it’s a big challenge. But it’s not my background, and I think we have enough.”

NASCAR announcer to join historic Trans Am field

Broadcaster Mike Joy will have an opportunity to get up close and personal with the twists and 12 turns at Sonoma Raceway before he calls the play by play for this weekend’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 for NASCAR’s Cup series.

The veteran announcer for FOX NASCAR will trade his microphone for a steering wheel when he competes in the Historic Trans Am Series as a prelude to the ARCA Menards Series West on Saturday and the Cup Series on Sunday.

Joy will drive a 1966 Ford Mustang owned by Ken Epsman of Saratoga and prepped by McGee Motorsports, which is based at Sonoma Raceway. The car raced primarily in SCCA's A Sedan amateur road races, but also occasionally raced in the Trans Am series against larger, better-funded teams and world-class drivers.

While highly respected as a pro in the broadcast booth, Joy has shown he can hold his own in the cockpit. He has raced this car in the Monterey Historics and won an Historic Trans Am race at the Lime Rock road course — in the rain.

"While I love broadcasting the NASCAR Cup Series each week, my heart is with the great Historic Trans Am racers that I followed in 1966-72,” Joy said. “That these exact cars have been so lovingly restored and are being raced hard today is simply amazing. This adds a great throwback aspect to Sonoma’s NASCAR weekend, and I'm very honored Ken has asked me to run the car.”

The Historic Trans Am Series practices at 9 a.m. Saturday. Qualifying is at 10:30 a.m. and a 30-minute timed race at 1 p.m. Sunday’s Historic Trans Am action will kick off with warm up laps at 9:15 a.m. followed by another 30-minute feature at 10:30 a.m. prior to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Cup Series main event at 1 p.m.

Other significant Trans Am cars scheduled to compete include a 1969 championship Camaro raced by Mark Donohue at then-Sears Point Raceway; a 1970 championship-winning yellow Mustang driven by Parnelli Jones; a lime-green Dodge Challenger raced by Sam Posey; and a 1972 championship-winning AMC Javelin driven by George Follmer.

Video supplied by Sonoma Raceway featuring action around the track during the 2019 Toyota/Save Mart 350.

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