Paul Menard believes Sonoma Raceway has more character now that the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams are once again running the Carousel.
“It’s a good thing,” Menard said Friday afternoon of the change. “Honestly, the whole thing is really good now. I’m glad they made this change. Every corner is fun.”
No driver in the field this weekend has ever run a Cup Series race on Sonoma’s 2.52-mile full course that features the Carousel. The last time the configuration was run in the Cup Series was 1997, and that’s been the main topic of conversation ahead of the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
“It was cool,” continued Menard. “I’ve watched it a bunch on TV with IndyCar and sports cars. It’s smaller than what I thought. I thought it would be wider — a more opened up corner than it is. It’s really pretty narrow and kind of a short corner. I was thinking it would be more like the Carousel [at] Road America, but tis is a lot shorter and there are some pretty big elevation changes.”
Menard was one of many drivers who admitted he spent time in the simulator getting familiar with the track’s new look. Darrell Wallace Jr. compared running the Carousel to “tiptoeing through the Roval” at Charlotte. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is approaching the race with the mentality of trying to mind his P’s and Q’s.
Sharing Menard’s enthusiasm is Matt DiBenedetto: Not only did he call it fun, but he said it hasn’t really changed Sonoma’s overall characteristics.
“That’s what we love,” he said. “The Carousel is cool. It’s going to be an important corner. It’s going to be where you are going to need to pass going into Turn 7. It’s a different corner for us now, but it’s going to be one of our main passing zones. It could be a pretty critical corner.”
William Byron also believes the Carousel can be a passing opportunity. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has one Sonoma start, which was last season, running the 1.99-mile layout with a bypass connecting Turns 4 and 7.
“[The Carousel] is blind on entry, so it’s going to be hard to make much out of the entry,” explained Byron. “I’m sure there will be some passes there once we’re all together and stuffed in there, but I don’t know. I think the biggest area to focus on will be exiting that Carousel … so you can launch to the next corner.”
With the course now longer, the number of race laps has come down from 110 to 90.
Ryan Newman admitted he arrived at Sonoma thinking about what he’d been doing the last 17 years. It took time for him to learn the Carousel.
“Figuring out braking points and what the car balance is going to be like as it went through the corner,” he explained. “But other than that, I guess a little bit of catch-up for me because I come in with a mindset of 18 or 19 years of what I used to do, and it’s not that anymore.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it races. It’s another half-mile distance that hopefully will add some excitement and passing zones that we kind of needed here.”
Martin Truex Jr. has two wins at Sonoma, including last season, with both using the smaller configuration, and said it took time getting used to running the Carousel. Truex was fastest in the first Friday practice session.
“The only thing I did in preparation was I went to the simulator a little bit, and you only get so much out of that,” said Truex. “All the visual cues are there, but you don’t have any of the feel, the sensation of speed, the g-forces, the feeling of the rises and falls and all that. So to go out there kind of cold turkey this morning in first practice was a little bit weird. It was pretty hairy the first couple of laps trying to figure it out. The track was dirty, which it always is here. So, it took a while to get it figured out. But I feel like once we were done with practice, I really was comfortable with the track and the changes we made to our car. And I’m looking forward to hopefully laying down a good qualifying lap tomorrow and having a shot at winning this thing on Sunday.”
“I think we have a pretty good understanding of where the car needs to be and where you need to position yourself to get a good run off [the corner],” Menard added. “It kind of suckers you into picking up the throttle too soon which just washes you up on exit and you don’t get the wide open throttle as quick that way. You have to have some patience for sure.
“I love it. It’s a good change. It’s fun. It’s a fun course for sure. I would say it’s probably the most fun I’ve had driving a race car this year.”