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The Sonoma Repave - How the New Surface is Expected to Change the Race

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By Adam Carabine

Back in December of 2023, it was announced that Sonoma Raceway was going to be repaved.  The surface, which was lauded as one of the most abrasive on the NASCAR schedule, was due for a touch-up.


With a new surface, how might the race look different this year?  The Cup Series drivers weighed in.


Before practice, Christopher Bell said that experience might not be as important as it once was at “Old Sonoma,” as managing tire wear is seen as more of a veteran specialty.


“I think it will definitely level the playing field from the experience standpoint.  The guys that were really good here in the past, they learned this track and figured out little tricks, and they had a bunch of tricks up their sleeve, of how to produce lap time whenever the car started to lose grip.  That should all go away with this new surface.”


After practice, Bell reiterated the point: “Practice went exactly how we expected it to.  It was a struggle for our team, but the grip level stayed consistent throughout the entire run.”


The biggest differences were immediately noticeable with speed and grip.  In an expanded 50-minute practice session, the Cup Series drivers were running 4-5 seconds faster than Denny Hamlin’s 2023 pole-winning lap time. 


Some of the other drivers weren’t necessarily ready to give up on the importance of tire management, though.


William Byron said, “There’s still tire management, it’s still low on grip.  You’re still loading both tires, both directions really hard.  It’s still going to fall off.  I think the good cars won’t fall off as much, but it’s still Sonoma and still tough to get around.” 


His teammate Alex Bowman went even further, saying, “I think [the tires] are just sensitive in different ways.  This place is still really slick, the pavement is so smooth, that there’s not a lot to get a hold of.  You still have sections like in between [Turns] 4 and 7, it looks like the inside was paved and the outside wasn’t paved, so you’re still chewing up the left rear tire across there.  Or if it was paved, it’s just really course in that one section of the track.”


On the other hand, Chase Elliott didn’t think that there would be a ton of change in how they manage tires this weekend.  “[Before the repave], It honestly got to where [tire management] didn’t play as much of a role as you would think.  Everyone was so similar in the past few races, even when the tire wear was there it’s like you could save a little, but when it came time for you to push to go and try to catch the guy that you thought might have jumped out there too far, you’d end up burning it up before you got to him.”


Brad Keselowski pushed his practice session to the limit, and when asked about whether tire management was going to be unimportant this time around, he answered: “I’m not sure, we had one set of tires that was just starting to come apart, so I’m not willing to write that off yet.”


Joey Logano noticed that the fall-off on tires was quick at first, but then it leveled out and stayed more consistent over the course of a longer run. 


“You know, I haven’t seen a repave that has tire wear yet. You’d expect that for sure, and definitely changes the strategy of what we’ve seen Sonoma be in the past, where it was constant fall-off throughout the run, now it’s steep and then it flattens out, plateaus, and just runs across.” 


Logano added an interesting extra tidbit, explaining that running at 100% for the entirety of the race, rather than having to focus on saving tires, meant that the race was going to be more physically demanding than years past.


“I’m glad it’s cool out, it’s hammer down all the time, there’s no chilling out, saving your tires, being methodical about it.  It’s as fast as you can go, every single lap.”


It was a sentiment echoed later by Chase Briscoe as well, as he said, “From a physical standpoint, this is going to be the hardest race of the year, I mean you don’t get a break, we’re just constantly getting after it. You’re definitely going to earn your money this weekend from a physical side of things.”


The extra speeds that drivers will be carrying could make it harder to pass as well, according to Bubba Wallace: “It’s going to be faster; it’s going to be that much harder to pass. I was trying some different gearing stuff, I was going back to like, old traditional gearing selection through the corners, and I was giving up time not taking a gear higher, just because the speeds are so much higher.”


Ross Chastain agreed, saying, “I don’t think you can put tires on, start in the back and drive to the front like you could before.”


Ryan Blaney might have been a bit more optimistic, expecting some degree of fall-off: “You’re not going to get the fall-off you had here in previous years, but hopefully you get fall-off to where you’re at least a couple of seconds off, in a 20-lap run or so – and I don’t think that’s out of the question.”


Kyle Busch seemed to think that the new track surface would be more forgiving of some of the common mistakes made at Sonoma: “I don’t know if guys are going to miss corners as much as they might before with less grip.  You might be able to wheel hop or drag a tire or something like that, and get off-line, but now I feel like there’s enough grip that you can recover fast enough and it might be harder to pass.


Unfortunately, the sentiment that it might be harder to pass came up a few times with drivers, including here with last week’s winner, Austin Cindric: “It’s one of the most difficult tracks to pass on, it’s one of the narrowest natural road courses we go to, so it’s not going to be easy to make up track position.”


However, Cindric did add, “It’s edgy for sure, so it’s easier to make bigger mistakes because there’s not a lot of grip off-line.”


Many different drivers, and many different viewpoints, which I suppose is to be expected. After speaking with most of them, there was really only one overarching thing that became ultimately clear – the race on Sunday will be unpredictable. 



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