SONOMA, Calif. - It used to be that short tracks were the guaranteed place for bumping, banging, and blown tempers. That has now shifted to road courses, specifically Sonoma, where more than a few NASCAR drivers will likely be raging mad by the end of Sunday’s Save Mart 350.
“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,’’ said Sprint Cup points leader Matt Kenseth.
NASCAR’s last two visits to the winding road course in Northern California wine country have been demolition derbies.
Jeff Gordon was the bad guy in 2010, when he tangled on the track with at least four drivers in a race he deemed a “disaster - just one of those terrible days where I made a lot of mistakes, no doubt made a lot of people unhappy.’’
The lasting image from last year’s stop at the 12-turn, 1.99-mile picturesque track was of Tony Stewart’s car backed into and suspended high on a wall of tires, where he landed after Brian Vickers intentionally spun him as payback for earlier contact.
Tempers were flaring after the race, too. Juan Pablo Montoya left mad at Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne was angry with Montoya, and Joey Logano’s parting shot for road course ace Robby Gordon was that “he drives like a moron every week.’’
Denny Hamlin, who said last year he’d been “Dingered’’ after he was involved in a wreck with A.J. Allmendinger, said all driver etiquette seems to be out the window when the series shifts to Sonoma.
“It just seems like people don’t give each other room like they used to and everyone is just a little bit more aggressive,’’ Hamlin said. “I think people talk about driver ethics and things like that - this is a very gray racetrack when it comes to that. I think 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.’’
Jamie McMurray, an innocent victim in last year’s Stewart-Vickers clash, had a much simpler explanation: “The wrecks are happening from people being idiots.
“You can’t be the guy that’s run 17th all day, and on the last restart expect that you are going to pass six rows of cars in Turn 7.
“That’s what happens here every single year. Somebody just does something silly. Most of the time the wrecks here just happen from people losing their mind.’’
Double-file restarts are likely the overwhelming cause of the problem. Because Sonoma has a limited number of passing zones, drivers tend to try to make up as much ground as possible on the restarts.
It leads to aggressive moves, and if a driver fails to move through the field as he had hoped, he can get stuck behind a slower car.
“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 spots before you know it.’’