NASCAR makes its annual pit stop in Sonoma 

click to enlarge The twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway usually produce an intriguing NASCAR Sprint Cup event. - ROBERT LABERGE/2012 GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Robert Laberge/2012 getty images file photo
  • The twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway usually produce an intriguing NASCAR Sprint Cup event.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is returning to Northern California this week for the silver anniversary of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 and record times could be set.

NASCAR's new Generation-6 stock cars will make their debut on the 1.99-mile, 10-turn Sonoma Raceway today — one of two road races in the Sprint Cup Series — and drivers are expecting high speeds.

"I definitely see a new track record in sight this weekend," said 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kurt Busch, who won at Sonoma in 2011.

The biggest change in this year's race was the new qualifying procedures. Rather than one solitary lap, drivers qualified in small groups of five or six for five minutes to produce a best-lap time.

The race is one of the most exciting for spectators because the narrow track and tight turns produces aggressive driving and plenty of opportunities for payback.

"To get past someone a lot of times you'll have to bump him to move him out of the way," driver David Gilliland said. "The minutes you do that, you go down to the corner and slow up to 45 miles per hour and the guy can get to your bumper."

Michael Waltrip, who has participated in 19 of the 24 Toyota/Save Mart 350's, recalled a time he retaliated against Ernie Irvan and the fiery exchange that followed the incident.

"After the race, he came up to me and said, 'What did you do that for,'" Waltrip said. "I said, 'you hit me as soon as you caught me, you didn't even try to pass me.' ... He said, 'you know what I'm mad about? When I was spinning around a piece of hot rubber flew down my suit and it was burning the snot out of me.'"

Today will also mark Danica Patrick's debut in the 217.4-mile, 109-lap race in a Sprint Cup car.

In the past, a handful of particularly skilled road-course racers, like Jeff Gordon, Ricky Rudd and Tony Stewart, had the edge in Sonoma, but Busch said the field is wide-open this year.

"Everyone who shows up to race [today] has a shot at winning," he said. "You've got to put the effort forth to polish up your skill sets on the road course — you can't have a weak area as a driver anymore."

Clint Bowyer raced to his first victory on a road course at Sonoma last year, leading 70 laps.

As for the season points standings, Jimmie Johnson comes into the race with a 31-point lead over Carl Edwards.

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Paul Gackle

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