As a Bay Area native, this has always been an exciting time of the year, and the track’s Silver Celebration promises to make the race even more special. I will be attending the race for the nineteenth time, dating back to 1992 when Swervin’ Ernie Irvan went from worst to first after jumping the start. I remember vividly those first years sitting in the old wooden grandstands on the frontstretch, how the cars would zip behind you exiting Turn 10, then roar back to life heading toward the start / finish line. And I remember how those stands shook in 1995 when Dale Earnhardt slipped past Mark Martin for his only road course victory.
This year, I will be sitting in Turn 2, Section C for both Saturday and Sunday, and will also be on pit road Sunday wearing the same hat I’m holding on the top of this webpage. So, if you see me, definitely stop me and say hello. I love to hear from my readers.
Also, for those of you attending the race, I am thrilled to announce that a video montage I made “25 Years of NASCAR In Sonoma,” will be played on the track’s screens during Sunday’s pre-race ceremonies. The video contains highlights from all previous runnings of the race, including ESPN’s introduction to the inaugural event in 1989. Thank you again to the staff of the Sonoma Raceway for making this happen; I am extremely humbled to be a part of the track’s festivities. The video is linked at the top of this article.
Forty-three cars will qualify for Sunday’s race, bringing with them several interesting stories.
One week after his last-place finish for Phoenix Racing at Michigan, Bobby Labonte will return to the #47 while Indianapolis 500 winner and Formula 1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve will take the controls of the #51, the team that finished 3rd last year with Kurt Busch. It will be Villeneuve’s first Cup Series start at Sonoma and his first in any Cup race since he finished 29th at Indianapolis in 2010. Villeneuve has been close to winning in the NASCAR Nationwide Series several times, most recently at Montreal last August.
Ron Fellows will be making his first Cup start at Sonoma since 2009 as the driver of Joe Falk’s #33 with sponsorship from Canadian Tire. Fellows’ best Sonoma finish remains his 7th-place run in 2003, when he was driving the #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet vacated by Steve Park. That day, Fellows made a thrilling three-wide pass on Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon in Turn 11 to take the lead before pit strategy shuffled him back.
Both Fellows and Villenueve will not be running the Nationwide race at Road America for the first time. A.J. Allmendinger will run Villeneuve’s #22 at Road America while Fellows’ #5 goes to American LeMans Series veteran Johnny O’Connell from the Corvette team.
The #32 Ford fielded by FAS Lane Racing Ford will be driven by Boris Said, who has raced for years with FAS Lane’s owner Frankie Stoddard. Said won the pole at Sonoma in 2003 driving in relief of the injured Jerry Nadeau, who nearly won the year before until the rear gear gave out coming to the white flag. Said's 6th-place finish that day is his best at Sonoma, a finish he equaled in 2004. He finished 29th here last year.
Brian Vickers will return to the #55 for his sixth start of the year, his first race since he drove in relief of Denny Hamlin at Talladega after Hamlin started the car. In two previous starts in the #55 at Bristol and Martinsville, Vickers has finished 8th and 11th, the latter coming despite serious damage suffered in a mid-race crash. Last year, Vickers finished 4th at Sonoma, but finished last at Watkins Glen. Vickers won a Winston West race at Sonoma in 2006 and was the polesitter in 2009.
Joe Nemechek’s #87 will instead be driven by Tomy Drissi, who last year was involved in a pair of crashes driving Tommy Baldwin’s #10. Nemechek, last year’s last-place finisher, will have to wait another week for a chance to tie the late J.D. McDuffie for the most last-place finishes in Cup Series history.
J.J. Yeley, the original driver of the #36, will bring Larry Gunselman’s #37 car back to the Cup Series for the first time since he came home 35th in the car last fall at Homestead. That Homestead race was the only one of nine starts last year where the Gunselman car finished under power.
Yeley’s replacement in the #36, Victor Gonzalez, Jr., will be one of four drivers who will make their Cup Series debuts on Sunday. The 37-year-old Gonzalez has seven Nationwide starts with a best finish of 14th in his debut at Montreal in 2009. He will become the first driver from Puerto Rico to start a Sprint Cup race, joining these other international starters at Sonoma: Max Papis (Italy), Hideo Fukuyama (Japan), Klaus Graf (Germany), Mattias Ekstrom (Sweden), Jan Magnussen (Denmark), Andy Pilgrim (England), Dick Johnson (Australia), Marcos Ambrose (Tasmania), Christian Fittipaldi (Brazil), Juan Pablo Montoya (Colombia), Marc Goosens (Belgium), and Roy Smith, Patrick Carpentier, and Ron Fellows (Canada).
Gonzalez’s teammate in the Tommy Baldwin-owned #7 will be Justin Marks, who fills in for Dave Blaney. Marks has eight wins in he Grand-Am Rolex Sports car series and a win at the Palm Beach road course in ARCA back in 2010. Marks also has 43 stars in NASCAR between Trucks and Nationwide, but none since 2011. His best NASCAR finishes remain in Trucks - a pair of 8th-place runs at Homestead in 2007 and Daytona in 2008. The car will carry sponsorship from Go Pro, who funded Marks’ 2011 season in the Truck Series.
Alex Kennedy steps into the #19 “start-and-park” Humphrey-Smith Motorsports team, the ride driven at Pocono by the late Jason Leffler. Kennedy, a 21-year-old driver from the K&N Series, moved to the Nationwide Series in 2010 and has made fourteen starts, most recently a career-best 15th at Montreal last August. Although the #19 has parked in all ten of its starts this year, there is a chance the car could run the distance with the help of new sponsor MediaMaster.
Paulie Harraka climbs aboard the #52 HASA Pool Products Ford prepared by Bob Keselowski and Nationwide team Go Green Racing. This is a team we haven’t seen since they ran a Toyota at Richmond with Brian Keselowski finishing 40th. Harraka has just eleven Truck Series and four Nationwide Series starts without a single Top Ten. This will be the first time the #52 has started a Cup race at Sonoma since 1992, when Tommy Kendall finished 13th after passing eventual series champion Alan Kulwicki in Turn 11 on the final lap.
Among the series’ regular drivers, David Reutimann in the #83 will be running the race for the first time since his 24th-place run in 2011. David Stremme will make his 180th Cup start and his first at Sonoma since he was 39th in 2009. Josh Wise in the #35 returns to the site of the first Cup race he finished under power last year, narrowly averting disaster when he skidded off course in Turn 10 to come home 30th. Rookie contenders Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. will also make their Cup Series debuts on the Sonoma road course, though Patrick has competed on the track seven times in the IZOD IndyCar Series with a best finish of 5th in 2008.
With eight different winners in the last eight Sonoma races, the last six of which being first-time winners on the 1.99-mile track, it’s very possible that any one of these storylines could end in victory lane.