25 years later, patience has paid off for NASCAR in Sonoma

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These days, the annual visit by the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to Sonoma Raceway is eagerly anticipated as one of the bigger events on the Northern California sports scene. But it hasn’t always been smooth for the stock car crowd in wine country. One could argue that the race’s ability to survive has been a testament to patience and persistence.

A Friday story in the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press-Democrat, penned by Bob Padecky, details the trials and tribulations that the former Sears Point Raceway has gone through since NASCAR came calling: Environmental protests, a sum of $1.5 million used to protect red-legged tree frogs on the property (a species that promptly lost its endangered status after the money was spent), and hard-won upgrades that came with hundreds of conditions the track had to follow.

But even through all of that, the event has endured and is now one of two road-course races on the Cup calendar alongside the race at Watkins Glen in New York state. Its winner’s list features plenty of star power, including California native Jeff Gordon (who has five wins at Sonoma) and past legends such as Rusty Wallace and the late Dale Earnhardt, who earned his lone road course victory there in 1995.

And even though the road-course IQ has improved tremendously inside the NASCAR paddock over the years, the event has always had an irresistible sense of incongruity: The oval-driven series with Southern roots barreling around a technical road course surrounded by lush vineyards. It’s an appealing change of pace and there’s always a chance for a surprise, especially with the various road-racing “ringers” that annually emerge to challenge the Cup regulars.

It may not be every NASCAR fan’s cup of tea, and while the setting is still lovely, you kind of wish there was a bit more green grass and a bit less brown (a byproduct of summer conditions there). But racing at Sonoma is always an intriguing event to watch, and it’s become a stalwart on the NASCAR landscape.

“I think it’s one of those tracks that you just can’t imagine it not being on the schedule,” two-time Sonoma winner Tony Stewart said in a recent statement. “And I think pretty much all the drivers and teams think of it that way.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”