NASCAR returns to repaved Sonoma road course unsure what to expect from fast new asphalt


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SONOMA, Calif. — Welcome back to fast and slick Sonoma Raceway, where the first repave in over two decades has created impressive speeds and concerns about the durability of the new asphalt.

Ryan Blaney led Cup Series practice Friday with a lap that was 4.5 seconds faster than Denny Hamlin's pole-winning run a year ago. But the repave hasn't been perfect and patches of the track appeared to break apart during an April sports car test on the road course.

The breakage required immediate repairs and plenty of patches that had NASCAR drivers concerned about the track surface ahead of the race Sunday.

"I definitely had a lot of concerns coming in, I have some friends who do some of the road racing stuff and they come out here and run and just said how bad it was coming apart," Chase Elliott said Friday after a 50-minute practice session.

"That was concerning, right, because our cars are way heavier than most of these other series. But I didn't see anything visually on the track and I'm sure they will inspect it later. But I was super concerned coming here and honestly now feel a lot better."

Defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. was against the repave.

"I wish they didn't," Truex said. "We had something really good here working, and certainly, last year, we did really well with it. There is more of a chance for an upset or for a guy surprising the field, I think, this time around. Before, if your car was really good, you could drive through the field, simple as that. You could pass cars, on old tires, and that is going to be a challenge this time around."

Hamlin offered a surprising endorsement after an initial tense exchange with track owner Marcus Smith over the asphalt breaking up during the sports car test. Hamlin and Smith engaged in a back-and-forth over social media regarding the repave that started when Hamlin posted on social media, "when paving on a budget goes wrong."

Smith, chairman of the Speedway Motorsports conglomerate that owns 10 of the tracks on NASCAR's Cup Series schedule, fired back with "this is a great post from somebody who doesn't know all the information. Ignorance on display for the world to see."

Smith later deleted the post but it escalated the debate to the point where Smith mocked the lack of a Cup championship on Hamlin's record and Hamlin accused Smith of squandering the racing empire Smith's late father had built.

The two sides eventually calmed down and Hamlin felt much better about the repave after turning laps Friday. The track had noticeable patches on it, but none that Hamlin said he could actually feel.

"I think it ended up at a net in a pretty good result considering all the extra work they had to put in," Hamlin said.

But will the surface remain intact over an entire three-day weekend?

"I mean, I'm not sure about that. I'm no expert in it by any means," Hamlin said. "But definitely I think these cars will test it more than any other series that comes here. Our cars are so heavy and that's going to push the track to the limit, for sure."

Goodyear held a tire test for NASCAR that had no problems but that was done before the sports car track day in which parts of the asphalt cracked.

The repave of the 10-turn, 1.99-mile road course isn't the only significant change: the infamous hairpin at turn 11 was altered with the rubber tire barriers on the inside of the turn replaced by concrete K-rails.

Tyler Reddick said it has created a slight blindspot at turn 11, but it wasn't as jarring as getting acclimated to the new speed.

"It's a pretty wild feeling out there, you feel like you are doing something wrong," Reddick said. "It feels like you're going to crash when you go into (turn) 1 because you're going way faster than you should."

Martin Truex Jr. is the defending race winner and one more win at Sonoma would give him five for his career at the track — a mark that would tie him with Jeff Gordon for most Cup wins at the circuit.

Five wins at any track would be a personal record for Truex, but another at Sonoma would give him a total of six on road courses. He won at Watkins Glen during his 2017 championship season.

Chase Elliott leads all active drivers with seven road course wins but has yet to score a victory at Sonoma.

Despite not loving the repave, Truex hasn't ruled himself out for a win on Sunday.

"I think for as long as I can remember you would come to Sonoma and you would think, 'Worn out track, tire wear.' The approach is a lot different than it is now. Now it is really going to be, pretty much, running qualifying laps every lap with the tires that don't really wear out, or fall off much.

"Totally different approach than we've done at Sonoma in the past, but with that being said, we tested out here, I felt good about it, and it is still the same course. New challenges, same course and hopefully we can figure it out and go win No. 5 here."

The race will feature two Australian Supercars stars in their NASCAR Cup debuts and each is trying to match the success of Shane van Gisbergen, who won his Cup debut last year on the street course in Chicago and then won the Xfinity Series race on the road course race at Portland last weekend.

Repco Supercars championship points leader Will Brown will drive for Richard Childress Racing, while Cam Waters is in for RFK Racing. Both are backed by Supercars and will carry Repco Supercars branding.

Van Gisbergen will be one of Brown's spotters Sunday.

"For myself, watching what SVG did last year, a lot of Aussies have paid a lot of attention to NASCAR now and I'm pretty excited to come over and have a go," Brown said. "The expectations are a really hard thing for this weekend and to know what to expect. Shane, obviously coming over last year and doing what he did, makes it hard for the Aussies to come out now. It's like a let down if we don't win.

"It's one of those things: I think Shane's been running inside the top-10 for his last couple of road course runs, so that would be great if we could do that. There are a lot of cars out there that have good drivers in them, so I really don't know what to expect until after practice and qualifying."

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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Jenna Fryer

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