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  • Jose Carlos Fajardo / Contra Costa Times file, 2012

    Clint Bowyer, winner of last year's Toyota/Save Mart 350, says NASCAR's new Gen-6 car will make "for closer racing" at Sonoma.

  • Jose Carlos Fajardo / Contra Costa Times file, 2010

    A Ferris wheel provides fans with a view of the 2010 Toyota/Save Mart 350 race in Sonoma, won by Jimmie Johnson. The road course is one of NASCAR's toughest challenges.

  • Gerry Broome / Associated Press file, 2010

    Jeff Gordon will be shooting for his sixth victory at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

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New car, qualifying among major changes for NASCAR race at Sonoma

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 19, 2013 - 5:23 pm
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 7:43 am

Sunday's 25th annual Toyota/Save Mart 350 offers several firsts: new car, new train, new qualifying.

But some things remain the same in this silver anniversary edition. For starters, that's 350 kilometers, not laps or miles.

"(This race) is so foreign to us, no wonder it's measured in kilometers," joked defending champion Clint Bowyer.

Sunday's race covers 217.4 miles and 109 laps on Sonoma's 10-turn road course. This week holds plenty of other twists - including one big turn through Sacramento.

On its way to Sonoma's road course Thursday, a convoy of haulers will swing around Capitol Park for a midday parade. The best viewing location will be at L and 11th streets near a special NASCAR display. The convoy is scheduled to cross the Tower Bridge just after 1:45 p.m. and reach the Capitol before 2.

The Central Valley's strong support for NASCAR showed in the rapid sellout of the first race-day train service from downtown Sacramento directly to Sonoma Raceway. All 500 seats were sold by Tuesday.

Working with the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, raceway and train officials spent years clearing the way for the debut NASCAR Express. With stops in Davis and Suisun City, the train will use some track for passenger rail service for the first time.

On the racetrack, NASCAR's Gen-6 cars will make their road course debut at Sonoma. Drivers expect the new models to bring faster action.

"I think this car could definitely promote more passing and better racing because of the attributes it has over the old car," said Greg Biffle, who won last Sunday's race at Michigan.

"It has a lower center of gravity," explained Bowyer, who drives the No. 15 Toyota. "That means more down force. We've had more speed everywhere we go. It also makes for closer racing.

"Everybody knows, when we race closer to each other, we eventually get into each other," he added. "We get into a mess - and those messes are entertaining for our fans."

Saturday's qualifying also has been overhauled. Instead of trying one solitary lap, drivers will be sent out in groups of five or six for five minutes - about three laps. The groups will be determined by Friday's practice times.

"This was something that needed to happen," Bowyer said. "Qualifying was kind of boring. Your one lap had to be your fastest of the weekend. (This format) will be more entertaining for our fans, too."

Danica Patrick also makes her Sonoma debut in a Sprint Cup car. Sunday's race marks the first time a woman has competed in this event.

Patrick, who drives the No. 10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, has more experience at Sonoma than most other tracks she's visited during her first full season in Sprint Cup. In IndyCar, she raced Sonoma seven times with three top-10 results. Her best finish was a fifth in 2008.

"Stock-car drivers just don't get a lot of time on road courses, and I've spent my whole career doing it, for the most part," Patrick said. "It's nice to go to a place where I feel comfortable."

But there's another rub: Sonoma uses a different track configuration for NASCAR. It's shorter and tighter. And the cars are nothing alike.

Does knowing Sonoma give her any advantage?

"Other than being familiar with the garage and pit lane, no," Patrick said with a laugh. "Nothing really translates."

TOYOTA/SAVE MART 350

What: NASCAR Sprint Cup's 25th visit to Northern California

Where: Sonoma Raceway, Highways 37 and 121, Sonoma

Schedule: Friday, practice (1 p.m., SPEED); Saturday, qualifying (11 a.m., SPEED), Sunday, race (noon, TNT)

Track: Road course, 1.99 miles

Distance: 350 kilometers (217.4 miles, 109 laps)

Admission: $25-$130 single day; $99-$180 weekend; parking is free. Discounts available for military.

NASCAR hauler parade: At 1:45 p.m. today in Sacramento. Route: Tower Bridge east on Capitol Mall, right on Ninth Street, left on N Street, left on 16th Street, left on L Street.

Details: (800) 870-RACE, www.racesonoma.com.

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Debbie Arrington



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