It was still three hours before the green flag would start the Toyota/SaveMart 350, but these racing machines needed to be tuned to the smallest mark to negotiate what is perhaps one of the more tolling races annually for these cars. Sonoma Raceway is a road coarse with big changes in elevations, not the traditional ovals or tri-ovals these cars run much of the NASCAR season.
The engines revved for several minutes while a couple mechanics looked at read-outs on their laptops, plugged into the complicated wiring installed in these cars. One mechanic said they can see almost everything that moves internally in the car.
|The pit crew of Kyle Larson's #42 Target Chevy do their work
during a green flag stop. Larson was penalized on this
pit stop for speeding in the pits and cost him a likely
top five finish at the Toyota/SaveMart 350 Sunday.
The engines were then turned off and their crews, all wearing their matching team colors, pushed them into the pit area. Then the pageantry began; a rock band plays on a portable stage at the start/finish line, jets fly overhead in formation, drivers are introduced one at a time to cheers from fans from all over the sprawling grounds of Sonoma. Then it’s time for God Bless America and the National Anthem. A couple jets from the 114th Fighter Squadron at Kingsley Field in Oregon zoomed in about 500 feet over the track and rumbled the ground. Parachutists dragging flags and colored smoke bombs drop in.
Finally, after about an hour of all the hoopla, it was time for racing.
Drivers got into their cars and Sonoma State University president Ruben Arminana announced, “Drivers, start your engines.”
Crowds cheer, drivers flip their switches and the engines once again come to life. The roar was again deafening. If you didn’t have ear plugs, you had a headache when it was all over three hours later.
Then, in an entertaining race with no collisions and only six caution flags, mostly for debris on the track, there was a two-man dual. Retiring Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart grabbed the lead coming out of a caution period with 22 laps remaining. He was hounded by Denny Hamlin the rest of the way. In fact, Hamlin grabbed the lead briefly on the final lap but in the final turn, a hairpin right turn that turns back towards the finish lane, Hamlin slid wide and Stewart took advantage and snuck the nose of his car inside and floored the accelerator to the checkered flag.
“I couldn’t believe as good as he was braking going into (turn) 11and I was shocked he missed the corner,” Stewart said. “I was shocked he left the door open like that. You can’t crack the door open with me on the last lap like that. I’ll take it.”
It was Stewart’s first win on NASCAR’s biggest circuit since June 2, 2013 and his 49th in 598 career NASCAR Sprint Cup races.
The other race teams quickly pushed their cars back to the garages while Stewart, his crew and sponsors and family celebrated in the Sunoco Winners’ Circle. The shiny surfaces of these racers of three hours earlier were, well, gone and dirty. They all needed a car wash, badly.
But really these machines weren’t going to see soap and water. They needed to go to the body shop first. Just about every one of them was dented in on both sides of the car. That’s because negotiating the 1.99 mile, 11-turn road coarse means you will bump and grind against your competitors throughout the 350 kilometer race.
Tires, some with large chunks in the surface, but all showing great wear, were removed. The cars were lifted into their elite 18-wheel haulers and in a matter of what seemed like a few minutes tools and equipment were all packed away. The crews stripped off their special one-piece suits, most drenched in perspiration and were tanking down cold water. Their next destination, Daytona Beach, Fla., was on most of their minds.
One driver very disappointed was Elk Grove’s Kyle Larson. He started fifth at the start and slowly moved his way up the ranks. His strategy was to pit early before anyone else and then recover when the others pitted. With 50 laps gone, Larson was in second place, chasing Hamlin. Once again, Larson came into the pits on a green flag. It looked like a quality pit stop, but right away NASCAR slapped him with a penalty for coming into the pit area at more than the prescribed 45 mph. He dropped back to 14th place and finished in 12th place.
“But I had fun, I’m excited.” he said.
Larson acted like he didn’t want to talk much, once again searching for his first win on the Sprint Cup circuit.
The fans, some 90,000 is what was estimated, all tried to leave, but the roads around the Raceway are just two-laned. Most folks were inching along Highways 121 and 37 for a couple hours trying to go home. Many people spend the weekend in their RV’s in a large field east of the Raceway. There had to be hundreds of them.
They sit outside the RV’s while others fight the traffic. They’ll go home Monday. They’ve made it a weekend in wine country watching the world’s best drivers.
See photos from the Toyota/SaveMart 350 on John’s facebook, Facebook.com/elkgrovesports