Two sides of Sonoma on display
SONOMA, Calif. -- Such a peaceful setting. Such an aggressive show.
Therein lies the irony of the weekend for NASCAR's most picturesque setting.
The annual summer stop in the California wine country is one of the favorite trips of the year for the Sprint Cup teams and their families.
Some people enjoy visiting America's most historic vineyards. Others make the trip across the Golden Gate Bridge and explore San Francisco, dine on Fisherman's Wharf or attend a Giants game at one of the country's most beautiful ballparks.
"It's almost like vacation," said Clint Bowyer, who won this race a year ago. "It really is for the wives, the girlfriends -- they all go on wine tours. It's a fun weekend for everyone in the garage area."
Until the race starts. Then all hell breaks loose.
If you love bumping and banging and tempers flaring (what NASCAR fan doesn't?), you should love Sonoma. Recent road racing often has resulted in road rage.
It wasn't always that way for stock cars on road courses, but things have changed in recent years.
"The field is deeper, and you're seeing guys be a little more aggressive," said Jeff Gordon, whose five victories at Sonoma are three more than any other driver. "And the cars are so equal now, so you have to be aggressive to get the slot you want. Double-file restarts also made a big change."
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Late-race restarts at Sonoma sometimes look like a gorilla trying to pack popcorn into a straw. The track is narrow; the turns are sharp; and something, or someone, has to give.
One reporter Friday made the mistake of asking Tony Stewart whether Sonoma restarts were crazy fun.
"Is it crazy fun? No," he said. "Go drive and then tell me what you think and then we'll talk about whether it's fun or not."
How fun this race is or isn't depends on how skilled a driver is at turning different directions instead of the usual lefts of an oval track.
For some drivers, such as Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya, it's a chance to make or break their season. They excel at road racing -- much more than ovals -- and probably need to win at least one of the two road course events to have any chance at making the Chase.
For other drivers, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth -- two drivers likely to make the Chase despite road-racing deficiencies -- it's about trying to get through it and avoid a horrible finish.
''It's always a challenging weekend, but I am looking forward to it," Kenseth said Friday. "It hasn't been my best track by any means."
Things could change this time for Kenseth because it's his first road race for Joe Gibbs Racing. A JGR car has won three times in the past 12 Sonoma races. Roush Fenway Racing, Kenseth's former team, is winless in the past 15 Sonoma events.
Mark Garrow has a preview of Sonoma with defending champ Clint Bowyer along with Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Win or lose, the first objective is to avoid an on-track incident with another driver -- no easy task on this course. Paybacks don't happen as often as most fans think, but Sonoma is a payback paradise, a chance to get even on almost every turn.
Canadian racer Jacques Villeneuve, a former F1 champ, might want to watch his back Sunday. A few drivers have issues with the road-racing ringer.
Bowyer called Villeneuve "a train wreck'' when asked to describe Jacques on Friday.
"He's an extremely fast train," Bowyer added. "But one that usually ends up derailed somehow."
Danica Patrick still hasn't forgiven Villeneuve for punting her out of a top-5 finish on the last lap of a Nationwide Series race at Road America last year.
Jimmie Johnson, who won the 2010 Sonoma race for his first road course victory, says you reap what you sow on this track.
"If you wrong somebody here, they'll usually get you back," Johnson said. "I'm always aware of that. Some drivers are less aware of it than they should be."
And some will pay the price for that lack of knowledge. Ambrose said he accepts it. Just go with the flow and be a little rougher and tougher than the other guy.
"For every wrong you do, someone will wrong you back," Ambrose said. "You're best off just staying aggressive and trying to make the most of it."
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