Longer course, more turns will test drivers’ skills at Sonoma Raceway

Most NASCAR drivers have recently booked time in racing simulators to prepare for new twists and turns in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series using what is commonly referred to as “the carousel” section of the course for the first time since 1997, drivers will navigate five new turns as they switch from the 12-turn, 1.99-mile layout to the 15-turn, 2.52-mile course.

One driver who hasn’t booked simulator time is seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

“I really struggle driving the simulator on the road courses,” said Johnson, who drove a Formula Ford car on the carousel decades ago. “I’ve tried it a few times, and I’ve only made a couple of laps and had to get out and look for a sick bag.

“I won’t use the simulator before I go. … I’ve at least seen it and know where the turns are.”

Kevin Harvick (4) leads Jimmie Johnson (48) and Kyle Busch (18) during the 2018 NASCAR Cup race at Sonoma Raceway. This year's race will include five new turns. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton, Getty Images)

Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Michael McDowell and Kyle Busch have a little bit of experience on the extra turns, which will add new passing zones and pose a different strategy for the race, which has gone from a 110-lap, 218.9-mile event to 90 laps and 226.8 miles.

Their experience might not help all that much.

“I was in the simulator … and got lost a couple times – forgot where to turn,” said Harvick, who drove a NASCAR regional series race at the track in 1995 but completed just 18 laps before his engine expired. “It is a lot different than I remember it from 1995.”

Defending Sonoma winner Martin Truex Jr. knows his simulation work will only help him with the general layout of the course and not all of the details.

“More turns on road courses mean more places to make mistakes,” Truex said. “It seems like a pretty tricky section. The simulator is one thing, and the real race car is another.

“You don’t really get a good seat-of-the-pants feel of the track in the simulator. You just kind of get you know where the turns are. … Until you get out there in a real car, it is an estimation.”

Each manufacturer has simulators, and the manufacturers have deals with the tracks as far as getting information to use in them. Chip Ganassi Racing (a Chevrolet team) and Team Penske (a Ford team) could have a little extra information from data they have gathered through their IndyCar teams, which have used the carousel in their races at the track.

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