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Drivers expect extra aggression at Sonoma

June 20, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

With stakes higher, Cup drivers expect pace, intensity to increase on road course

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SONOMA, Calif. -- Michael Waltrip Racing driver Brian Vickers calls Sonoma Raceway the "short track of road racing" acknowledging that over the years NASCAR road course racing has progressively gotten more aggressive -- as much bump-and-bang as form-and-finesse.

When it comes to the series' two road course venues, patience wears thin as the opportunity for retribution grows greater as the laps tick off. And the stakes now have never been larger.

Over the years, fender banging has become integral if not essential to success at Sonoma. And this season, success in this single race, such as Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, TNT), could mean the difference in qualifying for the postseason or not.

With NASCAR's new eligibility for postseason depending largely on a single win, a driver could earn his berth into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship this weekend.

If the pace and intensity were high before, they could be extreme now.

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"Everything just gets worse throughout the race, so at the end of the race when the intensity level is up and everyone's car is not handling as well, we run into each other," Team Penske driver Joey Logano said Friday between practice sessions.

"That's a product of it. That's why you want to be the guy that's being aggressive and not the one that’s getting pushed around. That's important. That's why you want to make sure you have a fast race car, and you're good in those right areas."

While some drivers attribute the newly assertive style to NASCAR adopting double-file restarts, others chalk it up to limited passing zones. Most just say it's a byproduct of needing to win. Now.

That's particularly true for several drivers such as Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman who are still looking for that win to ensure their way into the Chase. Stewart, a two-time winner at Sonoma, fully expects it to be a tough go Sunday afternoon, but he's prepared.

"It's gotten more chaotic, that's for sure," said Stewart, whose No. 14 Chevy was among the fastest 10 cars in Friday's opening practice session.

"You've got first gear corners here that have really wide entries, so if there's a hole, guys fill it and it create a lot of problems. There are other guys that just are back in 20th, and they don't care; they'll just bounce off somebody to get a couple spots.

"You definitely want to be in the top five on a restart and try to get away from a little bit of that group before you get down to (Turns) 4 and 7. If you can get through (Turn) 7, I think you're all right. It just seems like getting down to Turn 7 on a restart is where all the action is."

Similarly, the season's only three-time winner Jimmie Johnson smiled when asked about the aggressive driving he expects. For him, it's more about adapting to the new reality -- and deciding if you want to be the bug or the windshield.

"[This racing] is wild," Johnson said. "I think what aggravates most is the blocking. After a restart or two or a few laps of blocking, you just have to make that decision. Are you going to tolerate it or are you going to send them? It's turned into sending them lately."

Brad Keselowski, who has three top-five finishes at Watkins Glen, (the Cup Series' other road course venue), is confident that the end product of the urgency and assertiveness actually has created a better show for fans -- and a more meaningful win for the competitors.

"I definitely feel when the Car of Tomorrow came out, it changed the way road races were run, because the cars were a lot more durable," Keselowski said.

"Before, you'd knock someone out of the way and gain a position, but five laps later you were in the pits.

"This car, when it came out, really changed the game because you can make a lot more contact and get away with it, so I thought that was a big change to the racing on these road courses.

"I thought it was an improvement to road course racing in terms of being able to be more aggressive, have a little more contact, which a lot of our fans really like -- and still not knock yourself out of the race in the process. A lot of what you're seeing with the increase in aggressiveness is part of why road course racing so appealing."

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