Commentary

Sonoma is just like the old Bristol

Updated: June 24, 2012, 1:50 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

SONOMA, Calif. -- Some NASCAR fans long for the good old days of rough-and-tumble racing at Bristol, but they hate road racing.

And that makes absolutely no sense.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: Road racing at Sonoma is like the old Bristol.

"This has turned into the craziest race now, more so than any of the short tracks we go to," Matt Kenseth said Friday. "It's really changed the last few years. There's no etiquette out there now. That's all out the window."

[+] EnlargeMarcos Ambrose
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesRoad-course ace Marcos Ambrose won his second consecutive Sprint Cup pole Friday at Sonoma.

Maybe Bristol Motor Speedway will go back to its sheet-metal bashing self with the recent track changes, but for now, it you want to see old-school roughhousing, Sonoma is the place for wine-country rage.

"Most wrecks happen from people being idiots," Jamie McMurray said. "And here it's the worst."

Who is or isn't the idiot depends on your perspective, but tempers have flared here in recent years. A few examples:

• Brian Vickers sent Tony Stewart into a tire barrier last year after Stewart had punted Vickers earlier in the race. FYI: They are starting within two rows of each other Sunday in the middle of the pack -- the danger zone.

• Martin Truex Jr. was furious with Jeff Gordon in 2010 when Gordon caused Truex to spin. Truex also was angry with Juan Pablo Montoya and vowed revenge on both men.

• Jimmie Johnson sent Kurt Busch into a tire barrier near the end of the 2009 Sonoma race, intensifying their long feud.

"When you get to 10th on back, it's a cutthroat world out there," Johnson said Friday. "I'm glad we're at least not starting there Sunday. We're up front [starting third]. I would anticipate another very wild and crazy afternoon here."

Drivers say the biggest factor in making the racing more aggressive on road courses was the switch a few years ago to double-file restarts, where the lead-lap cars start side by side up front.

"This is our roughest race we go to now and it has been for years," Kevin Harvick said. "Double-file restarts brought all this to a new level, especially here because it's so narrow.

"There are only a couple of spots for passing. Drivers know that, so you tend to block and that's usually where the conflict of interest comes up in the next corner. You have to dive in there and take your opportunity. Sometimes you get into a guy. That gets everybody amped up."

Drivers say it's much worse at Sonoma (10 turns over 1.99 miles) than it is at Watkins Glen (seven turns over 2.45 miles), the other road course on the Cup schedule.

"The true road racers don't like coming here as much as Watkins Glen," McMurray said. "It's a lot slower here and you spin the tires a lot."

Said Kenseth on Sonoma: "It's slow, it's slick and it's tricky."

And the slower and slicker a track, the more cars run into each other.

"So this track tends to create a lot of drama, because it's so difficult to get into the corner," Greg Biffle said. "This track certainly has room for two cars, but it builds up sand and grass and rubber, so it ends up being one-lane wide. Guys are slamming into you, driving in where there is no room to drive. That's why tempers get stirred up here more than any other place."

Denny Hamlin, who still is looking for his first road-course win in Cup, doesn't want to be the guy stirring things up.

"You don't want to be the moron at the end of the day," Hamlin said. "People can get away with a little bit more; maybe pay some guys back for things that happen at other tracks. Typically at this racetrack, because speeds are so low, the risk of injuring someone is slim to none.

There are so many ways to make a mistake. My plan is to be as aggressive as I can without ruining someone's day.

-- Carl Edwards

"But someone is going to be mad at someone else. It's always been the case here. We are oval guys, so this is not our specialty. That's why we make so many mistakes running into one another so much. We underestimate the braking power of the cars. That's when we get into trouble."

Carl Edwards said the road-course rage seems to escalate each year.

"Last year we saw one of the most aggressive races ever here," Edwards said. "And we may see that again Sunday. I've run into people, I've run into [a] wall, I've tire-hopped.

"There's just more corners, so there are more opportunities to take advantage of people. You beat on each other for a couple of laps and guys get madder and madder. There are so many ways to make a mistake. My plan is to be as aggressive as I can without ruining someone's day."

No easy task at Sonoma. Pole winner Marcos Ambrose, one of the best road racers in NASCAR, said the thing that gets him riled up is guys blocking when a faster car is trying to make a pass.

"It you mess up a corner, you feel like you have to defend your spot,'' Ambrose said. "But consistent blocking, you just get sick of it and drivers will dump you for it."

Just like the old days at Bristol. If that's the type of racing you like, you should love the wine-country rage of Sonoma.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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