"I come here not with the mindset of trying to figure out how to win," Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, said. "I come here with the mindset of trying to figure out how to run 10th. If I can do that, that would be a huge success for us. If we can just stay consistent and stay steady, that's what we need to do. It's a great place for us to test."
With four consecutive top-10 finishes, Almirola enters this weekend's Bojangle's 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway seventh in points. In just his second full season of Cup competition -- he ran a limited schedule from 2007-10 -- the 29-year-old admits road-course racing is not his strong suit.
He finished 28th in two previous appearances at Sonoma, and has a best finish of 18th in two attempts at Watkins Glen, the only other road course stop on NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series schedule.
"I'm purely just learning," Almirola said. "We've been running really well this year. What we don't want it to come to Sonoma and then go to Watkins Glen and have two 30th-place finishes and set us back."
"This is going to be a really good opportunity to come here and work on my road course technique, which I'm not very good at. But I can look at some data and learn from probably the best road-course racer there is to try and figure out how to get faster."
For Ambrose, the test provides an opportunity not only to learn about the nuances of the new car on a road course, but also to explore options that put him in the best position to contend for a win. Considered the best road-course racer in the series, both of Ambrose's career wins came at Watkins Glen. He has four consecutive finishes of eighth or better at Sonoma, including 2010 when he ran out of gas while leading with six laps remaining.
"We've just come out here to give ourselves the best shot at winning," Ambrose, 21st in points, said. "We had the pole here in 2012 but our race package wasn't up to standard on the longer runs. That's what we're really focused on, getting tire life and making sure our car is good on the longer runs."
After the first day of testing, Ambrose said the feel of the new car was similar to last year's model, but with a difference in weight -- this year's cars are lighter -- and downforce, speeds will likely be faster.
That's been the case at most tracks this season, with qualifying records established in five of the first 10 races. Ambrose set the one-lap qualifying record for Sonoma a year ago (75.203 mph) and also currently holds the track qualifying mark at Michigan International Speedway (203.421 mph).
"We rolled off the truck (Tuesday) and we were as fast as what we were last year," he said. "I would expect in qualifying trim there will be a significant pickup in lap time; over the course of the long run it depends on what tire we come back with that NASCAR and Goodyear decide we can run."
The new car won't be the only change race fans notice. NASCAR has also changed the qualifying format for its road course events. Instead of single-car runs to set the field, this year teams will qualify in groups running multiple laps.
Ambrose said the new format will be "less stressful" for competitors.
"You've got more than one lap to set the grid," he said. "There was nothing worse than going out here for your lap, making a mistake and thinking 'what could I have done if I had not made that mistake?'
"So this is an opportunity for the driver to get two, maybe three laps in before the tires start to wear out, where they can really put a safe lap in and then really go for it. It will probably give the grid a more reflective snapshot of the speeds of the drivers and the teams."
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