For years, motorsport fans and pundits alike wondered why NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series elected not to race in the rain on road courses.
While the XFINITY Series has adopted rain packages in the past, it wasn’t until last September that the sanctioning body introduced modifications to the cars for inclement weather at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.
Although it almost never rains in California – the average rainfall for Sears Point in June is 0.23 inches – starting this weekend, all Sprint Cup cars will be outfitted with mandatory wipers, defogger, a rear-flashing rain light and rain tires.
“I ran in the rain once,” says Clint Bowyer, who won the 2012 Sprint Cup race at Sonoma and enjoys a 9.2 average finish on the 1.99-mile circuit. “It was pretty damn exciting (laughs). It was pretty wild. It kept raining harder and harder and they finally called it at that (XFINITY Series) race in Canada way back when.
“Hopefully, it don’t rain. Does it ever rain in Sonoma? If it rains there, it certainly wouldn’t rain long. But I’m looking forward to racing there. It’s like a big vacation for everybody. And hopefully we’ll be fast there.”
Since NASCAR announced the original road course rules last fall, additional modifications have been sent out to the teams, including the addition of a third wiper blade (under Sec. 20.4.6 in the NASCAR rulebook).
AJ Allmendinger, who earned his first Sprint Cup win at Watkins Glen last August, isn’t worried about acclimatising to the new rain package at his home track. But once the tour returns to the Glen, that strategy will change for the 33-year-old California native from nearby Los Gatos.
“I’ve raced in the rain before,” Allmendinger said. “It’s slick. Very slick. What makes racing in the rain interesting is that all the oils in the race track come up once it gets wet. So it’s all about trying to find the spots where there is more grip than not.
“It was never one of my favourite things to do. Somehow, I missed a lot of rain racing. In Champ Car, it didn’t happen a lot. In karting, I didn’t run a ton in the rain. But there are certain things about it – it does equal the field a lot. (It benefits) the guys that have really good car control and can figure out the track quickly. There is that challenge.”
Allmendinger is considered one of the favourites for Sunday’s race. He had a car capable of winning last year’s Toyota Save Mart 350. However, after starting second and leading 35 laps, Allmendinger was tagged by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and was forced to the garage.
Still, few in the NASCAR paddock can claim Dinger’s road course resume – which includes a Rolex 24 Hours (2012) trophy, along with one win at the Glen and two wins on the XFINITY Series tour (from the pole at Elkhart Lake and from the front row at Mid-Ohio, whilst driving for Team Penske in 2013).
Certainly, Allmendinger has been more proficient at the Glen, where he’s posted two top-5s and four top-10s in six starts, completed every lap and enjoys an average finish of 7.8. But it would surprise no one should the driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevy end up in Victory Lane on Sunday. And should he ever have to drive a stock car in the rain, Allmendinger – who first honed his skills in open wheel – is prepared for the task.
“I had one practice session at Road America in the wet,” Allmendinger recounted. “And these cars are big and heavy and they do flop around a lot. So it is something different than anything else I’ve ever driven in the rain.”
Note: Goodyear is introducing tire code D-4638 (for dry conditions) which features a thicker tread gage designed for better wear at Sonoma this weekend. If for some reason rain becomes an issue in wine country, the wet radials will be tire code D-4215. Teams will be allowed three sets for both practice/qualifying and three sets for the race.
“We will use the same rain tire for all of those events – as well as at Sonoma and The Glen,” said Goodyear’s Stu Grant. “They’re different tires from a dry standpoint but when you get to a wet condition, the rain tire we have will work at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
“The tread on a rain tire is a little bit softer and a little bit thicker – that’s the main difference there. It’s going to be cooler and it’s going to be slower in the rain.”
Goodyear will transport the race tires to the tracks but it will be up to the teams to carry their practice tires. NASCAR will allow any unused sets of rain tires to be recycled as practice tires for future events.
Two NASCAR champions that could certainly make the transition from dry to wet on skill alone are Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, both of whom have enjoyed tremendous careers on road courses. Jeff Gordon leads all drivers at his hometown track with five wins, five poles, 14 top-5s and 18 top-10s. The Vallejo, California native also has a remarkable average finish of eighth.
Stewart’s stats are equally impressive. In 16 starts at Sonoma, the driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevy has two wins, one pole, five top-5s, nine top-10s and has 15 lead lap finishes.
It may very well stay dry on Sunday, such is the California climate. But one thing’s for sure – come rain or shine, the world of NASCAR will be ready.