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Top 10: Spins, wins and squabbles in Sonoma

June 18, 2014, David Caraviello,

Road course racing lends itself to thrilling finishes and heated tempers

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Ah yes, another trip to Northern California wine country. What a fine place to sit on a caramel-colored hillside, loosen your ascot, dip into a wicker picnic basket, and take in those Pacific breezes with a little vino and brie. More cabernet sauvignon? Well, don't mind if I do.

That's the ideal, at least, and for many people that does sound like the perfect Northern California vacation -- OK, maybe minus the ascot. But for a week each year people descend on the Sonoma Valley for a very different reason, one where wine tours and sightseeing take a back seat to horsepower and speed. Indeed, NASCAR's annual visit to Sonoma Raceway has become a must-watch event, given that more recent races there have resulted in groundbreaking victories, seething tempers, and even a car hanging from a tire barrier.

The old canard about road courses being unfit for stock cars? It's literally been run over by a Sonoma layout that these days behaves like a short track with 12 turns. And now the stakes are even higher, given the win-and-likely-in nature of this revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Some teams are viewing Sonoma as perhaps their sole ticket to the 16-driver playoff, so make sure to keep a tight grip on your pinot noir.

And yet, the 44-year-old track has created plenty of moments as it is, particularly since NASCAR's top series first arrived in 1989. There have been flips worthy of Talladega, dramatics worthy of Daytona and arguments worthy of a San Francisco saloon. There may very well be more created this weekend, when defending winner Martin Truex Jr. -- as desperate for a victory as anyone -- and the rest of the Sprint Cup Series return to the hillside road course for the 26th time. Until then, here are the top 10.


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10. Big W for Big E, 1995

The Intimidator was a better road-course racer than his stats may indicate -- his first pole came at Riverside, and he famously won the pole at Watkins Glen while suffering from a broken sternum in 1996. But Dale Earnhardt didn't have a road course victory until Sonoma in 1995, a race dominated by another driver. Mark Martin led 66 of the first 72 laps, but Earnhardt passed him with two to go. He didn't just see the air -- he could also smell oil dropped on one part of the track, and timed his winning pass accordingly. "I dodged it, he hit it, and I slipped by before he got out of it." Earnhardt said then. Although he came close a few times at Watkins Glen, his first road-course victory would also prove his only one.

9. Upside down, 1999

The 1999 NASCAR event at Sonoma would be remembered as the second of Jeff Gordon's three straight victories at the facility, but it also contained a pair of high-flying crashes which reminded everyone that road courses aren't always as benign as they sometimes appear to be. The first involved Steve Park, who spun off course, backed into a tire barrier at high speed, hit an embankment and flipped completely over and around before landing on all four tires. The next involved Ken Schrader, who also slid backward into a tire barrier and up an embankment, and rolled twice before landing on his roof. Both drivers thankfully emerged unhurt, but everyone might have needed a glass or two of merlot to settle nerves after that one.

8. Rudd sets the standard, 1989

The track first known as Sears Point began as a facility for sports cars, and then motorcycles. But after it was bought by Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith, it was only a matter of time before NASCAR came to the Sonoma Valley. In 1989, the Sprint Cup Series rolled in, and Ricky Rudd led 61 of 74 laps in a dominant performance on the old 2.5-mile layout, which was eventually shortened to the current 1.9-mile version by cutting off the inner carousel. Rudd's win was no fluke -- he would go on to prevail again 13 years later, and his career top-fives trail only Gordon on the track's all-time list.

7. Grabbing big air, 1994

The airborne crashes endured by Park and Schrader in 1999 have nothing on another which unfolded five years earlier, and should make everyone thankful for modern barriers and fencing. Derrike Cope and John Krebs, the latter a regional racer from California, were racing side-by-side when both slid off the course. Again, there was one of those earthen embankments that passed for a barrier back then, and both drivers hit it hard enough to launch them into the air like stunt riders off a ramp. While Cope's car simply went up and over, Krebs' vehicle did one full-on nose-over-tail flip, and then another after hitting the grass. Again, both drivers ultimately climbed out of their wrecked cars unhurt. Merlot all around, boys.

6. Montoya's moment, 2007

Before his No. 42 team slid into a three-year slump that led the former Indianapolis 500 champ to return to open-wheel racing, Juan Pablo Montoya exuded promise in NASCAR. That was never more evident than 2007, when he saved his tires, stretched his fuel, and became the first rookie ever to win a Sprint Cup race at Sonoma. "The biggest thing I've done," Montoya called it at the time, and that was easy to believe as fans chanted "Co-lom-bia!" and waved the flag of Montoya's home country in Victory Lane. Just the third foreign-born driver to win at NASCAR's top level, Montoya would prevail again three years later at Watkins Glen. But in the context of his full-time NASCAR career, that moment in Sonoma was the apex.

5. Pass under yellow, 2003

As talented as he was, particularly on road courses, Robby Gordon always possessed the ability to tick people off. Well before his on-course outburst in that infamous Nationwide Series event at Montreal solidified his reputation as an outlaw, there was an incident at Sonoma in 2003 when he drove right through a loophole in the "gentlemen's agreement" which discouraged racing back to the yellow before it was formally banned. Gordon used a caution with 31 laps remaining to pass then-teammate Kevin Harvick, and led the rest of the way for his second career victory. "You just don't do that," runner-up Jeff Gordon fumed after the race. Robby's response to the other Gordon? "He's won enough races," he said.

4. Third straight, 2000

Of course, Jeff Gordon has won plenty of races at Sonoma -- a track-record five of them to this point. But he cemented his legendary status at the facility in 2000, when he finished the final leg of an unprecedented three-peat. Gordon started fifth, managed his fuel, and led the final 26 laps to lay a beating on the field, outdistancing runner-up Sterling Marlin by over four seconds. It was the culmination of an astounding six consecutive wins by Gordon on Sprint Cup road courses, a streak that had begun at Watkins Glen in 1997 and would end when Park prevailed at the same New York layout in 2000. But during his streak, Gordon was better than anyone at Sonoma, or on any track where drivers turned right as well as left.

3. Frontier justice, 2011

By the late 2000s, Sonoma had become as vicious as any short track. With more drivers in the hunt to win, and more corners in which to lean on one another, every race in wine country was an automotive fistfight. Wrecked cars limped to the garage as if caught in a Big One on a restrictor-plate track. But nothing topped the clash between Brian Vickers and Tony Stewart in 2011, which started when the three-time champ punted Vickers for what he perceived as blocking. Vickers responded by laying the perfect trap -- slowing to allow Stewart to pass just before the hairpin, and then unleashing a blow that left the No. 14 car dangling from a tire barrier. A driver --  then called "the Sherriff" -- had delivered some frontier justice of his own.

2. Stalled out, 2010

As had been the case with so many Sonoma races before, it was all coming down to fuel. So Marcos Ambrose did what so many drivers have done -- he switched off his engine under caution, trying to save gas. Except he couldn't get it started again, and as his car stalled out, he fell back from first to seventh. Since NASCAR ruled he hadn't maintained reasonable speed, he had to stay there -- which meant a driver who had been leading the race was suddenly back in traffic with five laps remaining. Ambrose, who had led 35 laps, settled for sixth while Jimmie Johnson went on to record the only road-course victory of his career to this point. "I don't agree with it, I don't like it," Ambrose said of the ruling, "and that's only because I lost the race."

1. Black flag, 1991

Perhaps no ruling in NASCAR's modern history, though, was as controversial as one levied in the wake of a 1991 Sonoma race as riveting as anything you'll see at any track. Even without the storm that followed, the finish was electric -- Tommy Kendall, substituting for an injured Kyle Petty and seeking to become only the second ringer ever to win at NASCAR's top level, leads with four to go. Martin tries to muscle past but spins out, and in the process cuts down one of Kendall's tires, knocking the road racer out of the running. Suddenly it's Davey Allison zooming into the lead with three laps remaining, with Rudd right behind him -- and then things really get interesting.

Coming to the white flag, Rudd did what plenty of drivers have done before and since -- he put the bumper to the guy in front of him. Allison spun and Rudd took the lead, charging around the course one last time toward an apparent victory. The shocker came when Rudd passed under the flagstand, and was shown not the checkered, but a black flag. The checkered was instead shown to Allison, who came across second, but was awarded the win. More than two hours later, NASCAR ruled Rudd had been given a 5-second penalty for rough driving which made him the runner-up. "A judgment call," Les Richter, then series vice president for competition, called it at the time. "Just hard racing," Rudd termed it. Even 23 years later, the debate continues.


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