News & Media

Bucolic Sonoma braces for another NASCAR brawl

June 24, 2011, David Caraviello,

SONOMA, Calif. -- It was a brawl in a region better known for its gentility and sophistication, the equivalent of a fistfight in an art museum. Amid the caramel-colored hills of wine country, in a part of Northern California famous for romance and scenery and peacefulness, Sprint Cup drivers went after one another as if road rage had become an airborne epidemic. Any clinking of wine glasses was drowned out by the grinding clash of sheet metal and the harsh tone of pointed accusations.

That was the scene the last time NASCAR's premier series visited Infineon Raceway, when any misconceptions about road racing being a finesse discipline were punted out of the way like a race car nose to a rear bumper. There was certainly nothing delicate about the way drivers competed against one another last year on this road-course layout, which produced as physical and as aggressive an event as the circuit saw all season. There were multiple multiple-car pileups, a red flag, drivers booting one another to the side, the garage area left looking like a vehicular emergency room, and a passel of angry rivals ready to chase Jeff Gordon -- of all people -- out of town. Everybody was seeing red, and it had nothing to do with the cabernet.

"Yeah, this place gets interesting, especially up there on the helicopter pad afterwards," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I don't fly to the race tracks on helicopters no more, but it's pretty interesting after the race. Everybody just sort of gets what's on their mind out, and they talk it out, or whatever. Or they don't talk, and it's just kind of awkward."

Goodness knows, everyone could have used a glass or two of the local stuff to help settle things down after last year's race, which proved to be less about speed and more about attrition. Just 11 laps in, four cars stacked up. Just past halfway, the event had to be stopped for 20 minutes to clean up a five-car accident. In nearly every passing zone, drivers in the middle of the pack beat and banged on one another as if they were on a short track. Many were inadvertently caught in the crossfire and spun out. Marcos Ambrose may have lost the race in a heartbreaking manner, but the overriding emotion was anger, and a lot of that was directed toward the No. 24 car. Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Elliott Sadler were among those demanding answers from Gordon afterward.

"It was an off day for Jeff," Busch said Friday. "He apologized to a handful of guys afterwards, and for some reason ... excluded apologizing to me. I thought that was interesting. He drove straight through our right rear, gave us a flat, and we finished 32nd. You have your bad days. You have your moments of beating and banging. It's one of those things where the lines keep getting further and further towards the aggressive side here at Sonoma."

It was an afternoon the native of nearby Vallejo, Calif., would rather forget. "Disaster," Gordon said, when asked to characterize it. "It was just one of those terrible days when I made a lot of mistakes, no doubt made a lot of people unhappy. I've been trying to move on from it ever since."

Sonoma, though, can foster that, the kind of race that can require even NASCAR's all-time road-course victory leader to make a round of conciliatory phone calls afterward. Although drivers point out that the 1.99-mile course has relatively few passing zones -- the Turn 11 hairpin being the most obvious -- the track creates something of a perfect storm combining double-file restarts, sturdy Sprint Cup cars, and a preferred line around the course that's as valuable as real estate overlooking San Francisco Bay. Up front, drivers can pull free of the chaos, as eventual winner Jimmie Johnson did last year. But back in the middle of the field, as vehicles lean on one another through the turns and drivers battle for the fastest way around, things can get ugly.

"I think there are very limited places to pass, and so when you see somebody that's vulnerable, you have to take advantage of it. And when you get taken advantage of, you obviously want to minimize it as much as you can," Kevin Harvick said. "As long as the fenders aren't rubbing the tires here, you can usually still make good lap times. Road courses have become very physical races, and the cars look more like they should have been at Martinsville than probably anywhere else. It's a fun race, and it has become very physical over the last three or four years. I think that's more of a tribute to this particular car, because you can be more aggressive with it and not get yourself in trouble with fenders dragging tires and things."

Other drivers shared that sentiment, that this version of the Sprint Cup car is stout enough to take -- or deliver -- a beating without performance being compromised. But there's also the double-file rule, which was designed to stoke action and seems to have done so at road courses more than anywhere else. With all the leaders up front on every restart, battles for position now take place in turns that weren't necessarily built for them. "Everyone is fighting for spots, and you run side-by-side on corners you would never dream of doing that [in] a couple of years ago," Matt Kenseth said. And a preponderance of cautions that prevents the field from stringing out only tosses drivers into the same cycle again and again.

That was certainly the case a year ago, when feuds erupted left and right simply because nobody was willing to give. Entering corners, drivers aggressively fought to out-brake one another, jostling ruthlessly for position like shoppers outside a big-box store on Black Friday. "There's preferred lines, and there's basically being off line," Gordon said. "If you happen to get put in a position where you're off line, then you're going to scratch, claw, with everything you possibly can, especially in the closing laps. There's no doubt that in the closing laps ... it's as aggressive, if not more aggressive, than a short track."

* Videos: Relive all the carnage from last year's race at Sonoma

Hence the emphasis on starting up front and staying there. Only twice has a Sprint Cup winner at Sonoma started from outside the top 13 -- Juan Montoya in 2007 and Kyle Busch the next year. Last season Johnson started second, was in position to pounce when Ambrose shut his car off in the closing laps trying to save fuel, and kept all the havoc in his rearview mirror. But he was well aware of what was going on behind him.

"When you're in the center of the pack, it's just an energy that exists when somebody makes a questionable move on you, and your excitement level goes up. And now you make a move on a guy, and it just kind of breeds this style of racing, and we're going to see it," he said. "Anymore, the passing zones, drivers are so aggressive in defending the passing zones and braking zones that you have to find a different way by, or just bomb it in there and [use the] eight-tires-are-better-than four mentality and hope that you make it. I think there's a very good chance of a lot of action taking place."

Translation: Be prepared for the prospect of more of the same on Sunday, and the bucolic environs of wine country once again playing host to a bare-knuckled battle among NASCAR's best. "I can promise you, there will be a lot of guys that will just crash each other just because they think they can," Tony Stewart said. "I'll bet anything I've got in my pocket that in the last two or three laps, somebody dumps somebody just doing something stupid. So there's no doubt in my mind that'll happen."

Gordon just hopes it doesn't happen to him. He may have made his round of apologies after last year's race at Infineon, but he also knows the prospect of payback looms as large as the Golden Gate Bridge. "I'm sure if they're in a position to kind of get back what happened, I'm sure they will," he said. "My goal this weekend is not to allow myself to get in that position."