SAN FRANCISCO â Two-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin compares Sonoma Racewayâs road course to ârunning from the cops.â
âGo as fast as you can, turn left, turn right,â he said Thursday in a race week event in San Francisco.
Hamlin will get the chance to put his hot-pursuit skills to the test in Sundayâs 90-lap Toyota/Save Mart 350 at the track near Sonoma, NASCARâs only Northern California stop and one of three road courses on the circuit.
Stock car racing in Sonoma dates to June 1969, just months after the raceway opened. The trackâs yearlong 50th anniversary celebration kicks into high gear this weekend with the biggest race of the year.
A huge part of that milestone is this yearâs reintroduction of âThe Carousel,â the highlight of the original 12-turn course that brings back additional curves, a hairpin turn and an elevated straightaway.
Drivers are predicting lots of passing action in the new turns, maybe as thrilling as Dale Earnhardtâs 1995 gutsy pass of Mark Martin with two laps to go that led to the Intimidatorâs only road-course victory in his Cup career.
âIt will create an element you have to adjust for,â Hamlin said. âThere will be a gap between guys who can figure it out and guys who canât.
âAnywhere you have braking, especially hard braking, is a passing zone.â
No current drivers have raced on this configuration in a Cup Series car, although Kevin Harvick competed on the 12-turn circuit in a Southwest Series car in 1995 and Kyle Busch did so in a Legends car.
Experience wonât necessarily favor them, Hamlin said. Most drivers have been practicing the new course in their track simulators and have massive data caches available on other driversâ practice runs.
What might be a bigger challenge is fuel and pit strategies.
The new path brings the course back to its 2.52-mile length, a lap taking about 20 seconds longer than the 1.99-mile course, causing teams to recalculate their time on the track between pits.
Hamlin said the road course is more mentally challenging than physically, compared to some tracks in the south where heat and humidity sap driversâ energy.
âThereâs no time to rest here,â he said. âThere are no long straightaways, itâs just turn after turn.â
The Carousel will also represent a new experience for fans.
A new viewing area created by the new course configuration is called âThe Pointâ and is open to all ticket holders.
The newly renovated area is the closest spot to watch drivers tackle the 200-degree Carousel turn, and the green flag and restarts as the field battles up the hill to turn 2.
Fans will find shade under a new redwood pergola, several food and beverages choices and games.
Fans also might want to take their own âJoy Rideâ this year. A new amenity the track is providing goes by that name and will help folks get around the facility quicker, president Steve Page said.
âPeople like to get up and walk around. We will have an army of golf carts,â he said. âTheyâll be like a track Uber. You flag them down and theyâll take you wherever you want to go.â
The drivers work for tips.
Drivers in Saturdayâs Procore 200 West Series race, a runup to the big race on Sunday, will be the first to officially race on the reconfigured 12-turn course.
The Procore 200 serves as Saturdayâs 50-lap main event and showcases the seriesâ standing as the proving ground for NASCARâs future stars.
Other track events this weekend:
Three NASCAR legends will be special guests during the pre-race Legends Chat: Ernie Irvan, Richard Childress and Hershel McGriff will talk about their memories of Sonoma Raceway.
A limited-edition 50th anniversary book will be available all weekend, a photo-filled memoir that chronicles the racewayâs history over five decades.
The weekend will feature a display of iconic stock cars representing some of the most memorable cars and drivers from NASCARâs history in Sonoma, including Kyle Buschâs 2015 No. 18 M&Mâs Toyota, Jeff Gordonâs 2006 No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, the No. 4 Kodak Oldsmobile driven by Irvan in 1991-1992 and Earnhardtâs No. 3 Goodwrench Monte Carlo from his 1995 win.
You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @loriacarter.