Sonoma stop often a memorable one

There will be mentions of wine country and likely a nod to nearby Vallejo, Calif., talk of elevation changes and ringers and other oddities not usually associated with NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series.

It’s race week in Sonoma and the series’ first road course stop always brings out the predictable as well as the unexpected.

Mention Sonoma Raceway, site of Sunday’s Toyota Save Mart 350, and more than the region’s wineries come to mind.

It’s a track that’s been on the schedule since 1989, coming on board just a year after the demise of Riverside International Raceway, another road course located just down the coast.

Sonoma’s track length is a shade under two miles and the layout includes a dozen turns or so – few of which are remotely similar.

It is a track where the brown grass occasionally catches fire after contact from the hot exhaust of a stalled race car.

“Tower, we’ve got a grass fahr over here by the carousel.”

That’s not something you often hear on the scanner at your local NASCAR venue.

It’s where Kyle Busch, barely a few months removed from what could have been a career-ending injury or worse, returned to victory lane with a vengeance and so much to prove. Winning at Sonoma and then winning it all in 2015.

Remember 2011? The image of Tony Stewart’s car, its’ rear end stuck high atop a tire barrier and going nowhere fast, hasn’t faded. Red Bull Racing’s Brian Vickers probably hasn’t forgotten the incident either. Or what led to it.

A year before that it was Marcos Ambrose seemingly on his way to career win No. 1 in the series. Until the engine stalled in his JTG-Daugherty Racing Toyota while Ambrose was trying to save gas, handing the win to Jimmie Johnson less than 10 laps from the checkered flag.

It remains the only road-course win for Johnson, who has piled up 82 victories elsewhere.

In 2007, Juan Pablo Montoya won at Sonoma for his first Cup victory, giving car owner Chip Ganassi his first series win since ’02. The guy he beat, Jamie McMurray, had been the last Ganassi winner. It was an early charge and a late pass – Montoya qualified 32nd and after slicing through the field, took the lead for the final time with seven laps remaining.

There have been others – Robby Gordon beating Jeff Gordon and igniting criticism from the runner-up for passing another driver under caution; Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace and how they could sling those heavy old cars through the turns and come out dusty but unscathed.

Folks such as Rudd and Wallace and Terry Labonte rose to the top when racing on the road courses was endured but not particularly enjoyed by most competitors. The Sonoma race, and Watkins Glen a bit later in the summer, were nothing more than bumps on the way to determining the season’s champion.

A win at that time didn’t guarantee a spot in the playoffs because there were no playoffs. A bad race at Sonoma wasn’t seen as an opportunity lost. More of those were still to come and on far more forgiving layouts.

Today? A win can get you in the playoffs and road-course racing is no longer considered an oddity. The mile-and-a-halves still dominate the series’ schedule but today’s racers are much more agreeable when it comes to turning left and right.

Some are as talented as those who dominated in years past; others simply do the best they can and move on. I suppose nothing, other than the names, has really changed.

As for Vallejo, well, that’s the one-time hometown of Jeff Gordon, the four-time series champ and 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame member.

it’s hard to think of Vallejo, by the way, and not recall former driver Sterling Marlin pronouncing it Valley-joe in his unique Tennessee drawl.

Gordon could wheel a car around Sonoma with uncanny precision and when he finally stepped away he had five career wins and 18 top 10s in 23 starts. His fans were left with just as many memories.

Others have stepped up in recent years. Guys such as Busch and last year’s winner Kevin Harvick. Kurt Busch, Kyle’s older brother, and teammate Clint Bowyer, too.

Then there are a host of drivers who have yet to lead a single lap at Sonoma, much less win. But they’re a talented lot and opportunities are often just around the next turn.

And at Sonoma, turns aren’t exactly in short supply.

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