Sonoma Weekend Notes

Ryan Blaney & Josh Berry

*Both the NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity Series got some rare extra time on the Sonoma Raceway road course – both series given 50-minute practices on Friday to help the drivers and teams acclimatize with the track’s new paving. And the vast majority of drivers were very receptive to the extra track time.

Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney set the fastest overall lap in practice, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Ty Gibbs and Richard Childress Racing’s Will Brown, an Australian Supercars Series star who is making his series debut this weekend.

“I feel like so many things in this sport are extreme,” said 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski, owner/driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing Ford.

“When I came into this sport we had two days of practice, one day of testing every week and it was like, ‘that’s too much.’ And then it was, ‘okay, you’ll get none,’ and you’re like, whoa,” he said with a smile. “Can we find a spot in between?

“And this format that we have this weekend in Sonoma feels like the right balance. It’s refreshing. I do think having practice is important to the competitive balance of the series and important to our fans and our media rights partners and so forth. My position is unwavering with respect with wanting to see that materialize.”

*Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson told the media at Sonoma Raceway Saturday that he’s certainly happy to receive a waiver from NASCAR this week allowing him to continue to race for the championship despite missing the Charlotte 600-miler on Memorial Day weekend.

He competed in a rain-delayed Indianapolis 500 and by the time he got to the second half of his planned “Double,” bad weather had forced the stop of the Charlotte race and it was called early. Larson did not get to turn a lap after arriving at track.

Despite missing the points from that race, Larson sits second in the championship standings – 21 points behind the leader Denny Hamlin entering Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

“Obviously, I think there’s relief on my end, even though I really wasn’t paying a ton of attention to it [NASCAR decision], to the waiver” said Larson, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “At least now knowing I do personally get to race for a championship feels good. I’m sure there was a lot that went into it on NASCAR’s end.”

Larson said that he did not personally speak with NASCAR regarding the decision but that Hendrick executives Jeff Gordon, Jeff Andrews and the team’s Hall of Fame owner Rick Hendrick were in more constant contact. He believes NASCAR was just trying to “get all their ducks in a row” before announcing its decision Tuesday.

“I was appreciative of the support of my race team and just kind of let them handle it,” Larson said, adding “I’m just thankful we don’t have to deal with it again and happy to get to race for a championship.

“. …I was a little less stressed out about it than I think what everybody would have imagined me to be. I’m just happy that if I do win a championship now I can put my name on the record books.”

*Instead of competing in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race, New Zealand’s Shane Van Gisbergen will be spotting for the Australian Will Brown. The two know each other from the Australian Supercar Series, where Van Gisbergen won three championships and Brown currently competes.

The longer practice time – 50 minutes – was especially timely for Brown and fellow Australian Supercar Series driver Waters. The two Aussie drivers are having to get used to not only the challenging Sonoma circuit, but the cars. In Australia, the race cars have right side steering wheels and shifts are made with the left hand – the complete opposite of what they are using in NASCAR.

Van Gisbergen, who won the inaugural Chicago Street Course race last summer in his NASCAR debut and won the Portland, Ore. NASCAR Xfinity Series race last week was quite optimistic about the two Australian drivers’ participation this weekend – and glad to help them get acclimated.

“He [Brown] asked me [to spot] and initially I said, ‘no,’ but he kept asking,” Van Gisbergen said with a smile Friday. “I think I’ll just be the secondary spotter so I don’t have to say much, which suits me fine. Just willing to help him.

“So happy to help those guys. Will’s been asking questions all week and I went and sat in on the simulator. I threw some ideas out there. He’s a great young driver and so is [Australian] Cam Waters and I’m sure they’ll both be up there and hopefully they stay there. This long practice is certainly a help for them to get used to the car.”

Van Gisbergen said he was pleased to see the influx of drivers from the South Pacific. Another former Australian Supercars star, Australian Marcos Ambrose competed in NASCAR fulltime from 2009-2014 winning back-to-back NASCAR Cup Series races on the Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course in 2011-12. He won five NASCAR Xfinity Series races – four at The Glen and one on the Montreal, Canada street course.

“I think it’s awesome [Brown and Waters are competing] and obviously, last year there was [Formula One champion] Jenson Button and [sports car champion] Kamui Kobayashi [racing in NASCAR],” Van Gisbergen said. “I told those guys, these [NASCAR] guys aren’t useless. I was quite lucky winning my first race. These [NASCAR] guys are very good road racers now, especially with five or six road races this year, so everyone’s gotten quite good on them and really focused on them.

“It’s not easy for someone to come in and run up front. I don’t know what their expectations are, but I think if both of them get around the top-10 or around the top-10 that would be amazing at a track that everyone [else] knows here.”


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