News & Media

Road course etiquette goes out the window

June 22, 2012, Mark Aumann,

SONOMA, Calif. -- Lapses of attentiveness can turn into big mistakes, trigger payback at Sonoma

Road course etiquette? Not in today's NASCAR, where more often than not, the cars leaving Sonoma after a race weekend have more used-up sheet metal than a high school shop class.

Even pure road racers have succumbed to the "crash nouveau" style of rootin' and gougin' that's now prevalent at a track renowned for being the most technical road course on the NASCAR schedule.

"If you get behind and you know you have a pretty good car, you have to push the issue, and that gets everybody amped up."


"The wrecks are happening from people being idiots," Jamie McMurray said.

You'd think Juan Montoya, who won this race in 2007, had a streak of four consecutive top-10 finishes snapped last year and is one of the favorites in Sunday's Toyota/SaveMart 350, would love the opportunity to show his road racing skills.

But that's not really the case, Montoya said, because the tight, twisty, 12-turn track doesn't allow the driver to showcase the full potential of his equipment.

"As a racer, you don't make a difference here," Montoya said. "It's really hard to make up any lap time. You've really got to feather the throttle, so you've really got to under-drive the car to be good here. It's kind of hard."

"It's a really slow track. You're always sliding around. You're always struggling to try to put the power down."

Sonoma is a place where a tiny lapse of attentiveness can turn a minor mistake into a huge one. And as the mistakes begin to pile up, the aggression level by the end of the race often creates situations that lead to the kind of huge pileups you'd expect at places like Daytona and Talladega.

Blame double-file restarts. Blame the ability to exert a little payback for previous transgressions. Or as McMurray believes, blame drivers who "lose their minds."

"You can't be the guy who runs 17th all day and on the last restart expects to pass six rows of cars in Turn 7," McMurray said. "And that's what happens here, every single time, every single year."

That's because Sonoma is a place where you get too many cars trying to make up ground with very few passing zones. And that raises the frustration level for drivers who feel like they're stuck behind slower cars.

For Kevin Harvick, Sonoma is the roughest race of the season, with much more bashing and gouging than even the short-track bullrings like Bristol and Martinsville. Much of that, surprisingly, is because the drivers have become better top-to-bottom at road racing, so the field doesn't string out as much as in the past.

"It has been for the last few years," Harvick said. "I think a lot of that comes from the double-file restarts and I think it escalates as the day goes on.

"When you get those opportunities to pass, you have to dive in there and take that opportunity. Sometimes you make a mistake and get into a guy and get into his door or whatever the case may be."

And with perhaps no more than three real passing zones -- Turns 3, 7 and 11 -- Harvick said you have to capitalize on the opportunity when it presents itself.

"Everybody is pretty aggressive and all that comes in a braking zone," Harvick said. "If you get behind and you know you have a pretty good car, you have to push the issue, and that gets everybody amped up."

Matt Kenseth has witnessed the evolution firsthand. He remembers when there was more give-and-take, even later in the race. But that's become rarer and rarer as the talent level and equipment have become more equal.

"I started road course racing however long ago it was, and there was always road course etiquette," Kenseth said. "You would only pass in certain zones, and when people got along side you to pass in those zones, you would drop back and fall in line and go on. You would really race the race track the entire race and race the fuel mileage and tires and try to be in position."

Now, late race restarts up into Turn 2 are more like cavalry charges -- and there will be casualties by the time the field gets back down through the esses.

It's a combination of factors: worn tires, an already slick track covered with dirt and gravel, lots of lead-lap cars and to top it all off, impatient drivers.

"I think the two-wide restarts has really thrown almost all of [the etiquette] out the window and everybody is bunched up," Kenseth said. "You can't wait for one [slow] car on the restarts because you might lose eight or 10 sports before you know it.

"I think this has turned into the most no-holds-barred, crazy, people running into each other race, more so than any of the short tracks we go to now."