NASCAR drivers will enjoy a different kind of whine this weekend in Sonoma.
Call it Chateau Defeat.
As pressure amps up on Sunday and tempers flare, the blame game will be in full force as drivers compete for real estate throughout the 11 narrow turns of the 1.99-mile raceway.
Lately, the action at Sonoma has triggered more drama and driver payback than any short track on the Sprint Cup circuit.
“This is probably our roughest race that we go to throughout the year now,” Kevin Harvick said. “It has been for the last few years. A lot of that comes from the double-file restarts and it escalates as the day goes on.”
Harvick believes the escalation of tension in this event stems from the competition ramping up.
“Everybody has become a lot better at road racing,” Harvick adds. “When you get those opportunities to pass you have to dive in there and take that opportunity and sometimes you make a mistake and get into a guy and get into his door or whatever the case may be.
“You have to try to capitalize on opportunities and everybody is pretty aggressive and all that comes in a braking zone. If you get behind and you know you have a pretty good car you have to push the issue and that gets everybody amped up.”
Points leader Matt Kenseth is not really sure what happened to “race-course etiquette” since he ran his first race here in 2000. But similar to Harvick, he’s noticed a change, particularly with the new car and addition of double-file restarts.
“You would only pass in certain zones and when people got alongside you to pass in those zones you would drop back and fall in line and go on,” Kenseth said. “You would really race the racetrack the entire race and race the fuel mileage and tires and try to be in position — since the two-wide restarts and this car that has really changed, all the etiquette is out the window and you run side by side in places you were told not to before.
“The two-wide restarts has really thrown almost all of that out the window and everybody is bunched up. You have wait for one car on the restarts because you might lose eight or 10 spots before you know it.
“Those two things have changed it the most. 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.”
Sometimes, drivers just can’t help themselves. That was the case with Brian Vickers and Tony Stewart last year. Stewart accused Vickers of blocking him and punted his Toyota. Whether Vickers was blocking or not, Stewart underestimated Vickers’ need for retribution. The two made contact first on Lap 38, but 50 laps later Vickers shot the No. 14 Chevrolet tail end into the tires in Turn 11.
Marcos Ambrose, who won the series most recent road-course race, at Watkins Glen in August, and finished fifth here last year, insists there’s an unwritten rule the drivers follow when it comes to road courses and blocking for position. Ambrose feels that if drivers are consistently blocking they can expect to get dumped.
“We police it ourselves and you just have to choose who you are racing against, what time of the race it is and be smart,” Ambrose said. “We aren’t Sprint Cup Series drivers because we are dummies. We have earned our way to this point and we should know how to conduct business out there. You have to know who you are racing around and you have to realize what is happening around you. You have to make those choices. If the guy behind you feels you have been a (jerk), he will get you out of the way.”
And as Jamie McMurray notes, one of Sonoma’s best characteristics is that the raceway lends itself to retaliation.
“You can catch the guy if he does get into you,” Jamie McMurray said. “You have a chance to get him back pretty quick. … Most of the wrecks that happen here just happen 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.”
For Denny Hamlin, who is currently fifth in the points standings, the gameplan for Sunday is simple – he doesn’t want to be ‘that guy.’
“Exactly right,” Hamlin said. “You don’t want to be the moron at the end of the day.”
Defending Toyota/Save Mart 350 winner Kurt Busch was ninth fast in first practice on Friday and qualified eighth.
So is Busch’s No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet a contender for Sunday?
“Practice was nice and solid,” Busch said. “We had to do race trim, do an extended run and then switch over to Q-trim (qualifying) and we were all done in an hour and a half. I think the car’s going to be OK. I think we’re right where we need to be in race trim.”
To prepare for the weekend, Busch participated in a couple’s yoga class with friends on Thursday. Busch described the experience as “fun.”
“The yoga was first time out — I’m a rookie,” Busch said.
His favorite position? “Downward dog.”
5: Wins and 437 laps led at Sonoma — the most ever in Cup.
790: Laps led this season or 17 percent of all laps led by Jimmie Johnson – the most in Cup.
4,648: Laps completed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. — the only driver to lead 100 percent of all laps raced.
Jeff Gordon has arguably been the most successful Sprint Cup driver at Sonoma since he made his debut here in 1993. Five years later, officials removed the carousel from his hometown track — eliminating Turns 5 and 6 from the circuit. However, recently there’s been talk of returning the track to its former layout, a move that would suit Gordon.
“Oh yeah, I loved it,” Gordon said of the carousel. “I always loved it. I’m not a big fan of Turn 4, what we have now. I thought the carousel was great, a lot of fun, another passing zone, which I feel like we desperately need. It’s so hard to pass here and that carousel was tricky and makes it very challenging. It’s an exciting part of the racetrack. Also like the fact that we get more laps in this way. I’ve gotten used to it and have gotten better at making some passes in (Turn) 7 and coming out of (Turn) 4. But I’m a traditionalist these days and I still love the old track.”