Hitting the open road for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 race in Sonoma 

click to enlarge Some drivers welcome week away from oval as NASCAR makes pit stop at Sonoma’s road course. - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Images File Photo
  • Some drivers welcome week away from oval as NASCAR makes pit stop at Sonoma’s road course.

There aren’t too many in NASCAR who favor a road course over the traditional oval.

But there are a few.

“I didn’t like them until last year, cause I didn’t run good at ’em,” driver of the No. 20 car, Joey Logano, said, laughing, hard. “So when you come to a track that you run good at, you automatically love the place.”

That place is the site of today’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 race at the raceway in Sonoma, one of only two road courses in the Sprint Cup Series.

Logano and 42 other elite drivers today will hit the road in hopes of completing 110 laps around the 10-turn, 1.99-mile course. It’s a race he ran strong last year, finishing sixth after starting off the pole. And having posted his first victory of the season at Pocono earlier this month, there’s quiet confidence about the 22-year-old.

“My head is where it needs to be,” Logano said. “When you strap your helmet on as an athlete, I think you got to be a little bit full of yourself.”

But Logano isn’t the only driver who enjoys the left and right turning of a stock car.

“For me, I was always a road course guy,” AJ Allmendinger said, driver of the No. 22 car. “So being a part of it has always been fun. And I love road-course racing and I think it’s a good mixture. If we can get like one or two more road courses, it would be more exciting for me.”

But where there’s fun, there’s usually danger.

“It’s so easy to make a mistake here,” Allmendinger said. “It’s so easy to try to be aggressive with your race car and just overstep that line just a little bit and a make one small mistake. And that small mistake turns into a huge mistake.”

A native of Los Gatos, Sonoma is somewhat of a homecoming for the 30-year-old Allmendinger. But he isn’t the only Bay Area product to ever sit behind the wheel.

“I’ll tell you one thing, I sure wish I had this track on our schedule when we ran,” Oakland’s Marvin Panch said.

The 86-year-old won the Daytona 500 in 1961 and was selected in 1998 as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers. Panch still remembers his first race at the “Oakland Wall.”

“I thought I was a hot shoe on a highway,” he said, remembering racing his 1950 Mercury. “But I got in that car and was around the racetrack, they were passing on both sides. It scared the daylight out of me.”

Panch was a young man then, as many of the drivers in today’s race are now.

Logano, the current driver of the Home Depot car, took over in 2008 where renowned driver Tony Stewart left off.

“Challenging,” he said of that time. “Very challenging. I look back on it and say I was 18 years old; I had maybe 15 races under my belt. OK, let’s jump into the Sprint Cup car.

“The way I look at it, I was an 18-year-old kid, now I’m a 22-year-old man. That’s what it takes to be successful. Having the raw driving talent is one thing. I had that.”

The Sonoma race is the 16th of the 36-race series. Sonoma has hosted the contest for 24 consecutive years. The total purse allotted to drivers is $5,637,427.

“I ran 242 races,” International Motorsports Hall of Famer Donnie Allison, 72, said. “That’s all I ever won in all that time, was $1 million.”

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