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Notebook: Should drivers use two-stop or three-stop strategy?

The SportsXchange

By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

SONOMA, Calif. -- Road courses pose a different sort of challenge to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers, but they also give crew chiefs the opportunity to try strategies that simply aren't viable at oval tracks.

The length of Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway-110 laps (218.9 miles at the 1.99-mile road course)-makes it possible for a driver to finish the event using either two or three pit stops.

In the latter case, a driver must start the racing saving fuel and hope for a few well-timed cautions to assist in the process.

Brian Vickers, driver of the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, said qualifying position was a major criterion in determine which strategy a team might use. There's only one problem with that approach: qualifying at Sonoma is on Saturday, meaning the bulk of a team's practice -two long sessions on Friday-will take place before a driver knows where on the grid he'll start.

At most oval tracks, qualifying takes place on Friday after one practice session, with two more practices on Saturday to dial in the car and develop strategy.

To Vickers, Saturday qualifying at Sonoma is "a little bit of a curveball thrown into it."

"To a certain extent, you have to know what you're doing going in," Vickers told the NASCAR Wire Service on Thursday at a track luncheon in San Francisco. "This year... you can always change it, but you kind of have to commit to practice what you're going to race, even before you know where you qualify."

Further complicating the equation, crew chiefs must set the Electronic Fuel Injection fuel mapping either for a two-stop or three-stop strategy. Once the race begins, that can't be adjusted.

ANOTHER KIND OF SIX-PACK?

Hendrick Motorsports drivers have won five straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, dating to Jeff Gordon's May 10 victory at Kansas Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson followed with wins at Charlotte at Dover before Dale Earnhardt Jr. collected his second victory of the year in the June race at Pocono. Last week at Michigan, Johnson finally broke his jinx with his first triumph at the two-mile speedway.

Even though Johnson, Gordon and Kasey Kahne all have won at Sonoma, Johnson stopped short of predicting victory for HMS at the 1.99-mile road course. After all, there have been nine different winners in the last nine Sonoma races.

"It's been such a different race the last five or six years, when you look at the winners," Johnson said Friday before the opening Sprint Cup practice. "People you might not put into that road course ringer category, myself included ... I won, Martin (Truex, Jr.), Clint (Bowyer), Kasey Kahne was in there at some point. More traditional oval guys, so I think this is the hardest race to pick yet.

"Then, when you add the fuel strategy that typically plays in, that shakes it up as well. I think all four of our Hendrick cars will be capable of it, and we certainly want to keep the streak alive, but I can't pick a favorite here. I could probably pick a favorite, but I don't think there is a safe bet on a winner. I think there are 20, 25 cars that could win here."

Johnson, of course, would like nothing better than to post a fourth triumph this season, just three days before he and his No. 48 team are scheduled to visit President Barack Obama at the White House in recognition of their 2013 championship.

THROW THE NOTES AWAY

Michael Waltrip Racing has won the last two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events at Sonoma Raceway.

To hear Clint Bowyer tell it, that track record and $20 might buy you breakfast at the nearby Carneros Inn.

With NASCAR's new rules package this year, the race setups that carried Bowyer to victory in 2012 and Martin Truex Jr.to the winner's circle last year aren't of much use in 2014, Bowyer acknowledged.

"Things evolve so much with this new rule package, that setup won't even qualify for this weekend's race," he said. "The very setup that won the last two races just won't... it won't compete. So I do dig that about this sport. You have to be able to keep up with the times and keep pushing forward and figuring out ways to keep forward drive in the cars and then keep turning it."

Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie must have found some answers for the new configuration. The No. 15 MWR Toyota was second fastest behind Kurt Busch's No. 41 Chevrolet in opening Sprint Cup practice.

In Friday's second practice, Bowyer paced the field at 95.988 mph.
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