One of the most common complaints you hear from critics of NASCAR is that the cars only turn left. They’ve got a point I suppose; the vast majority of NASCAR events are indeed held at oval tracks. And while those ovals circuits vary from tiny short tracks to massive super speedways, NASCAR races do in fact have a lot of left turns.
But those with even a passing familiarity with NASCAR know the series actually does race on tracks other than ovals. And it’s freaking awesome when they do.
Every year, the top-level Sprint Cup series makes stops at two of America’s iconic road courses – Watkins Glen in New York and Sonoma Raceway in California.
Being both an unapologetic NASCAR fan and a California resident, I was long overdue to go up and experience the Sonoma race for myself. I’ve seen NASCAR on the oval at Fontana before, but Sonoma is something totally different. I decided to make it happen this year.
Rather than covering the race as a traditional member of the media would, I simply attended this one as a normal race fan, buying a ticket, sitting in the stands and generally enjoying the day with some friends. It turned out to be a fantastic experience.
One of the reasons I’d yet to make the trip to Sonoma for NASCAR was hearing the horror stories about the traffic to and from the track on race day. But there’s now an alternative to this – taking the train.
For a few years now there’s been a NASCAR train that runs from Sacramento and a couple other towns directly to Sonoma Raceway for the race, and I figured that’d be an easy, stress-free way to travel to the event.
After spending the night in downtown Sac, the day began early as we boarded the train for Sonoma. The NASCAR Express uses old sections of rail line to get to the race track, so the speeds aren’t fast. But there’s plenty of time to relax, enjoy the scenery, and maybe enjoy an adult beverage or two – as plenty of race fans were doing.Sights & Sounds
Eventually the train pulled up to the raceway, leaving about an hour and a half to go before the green flag. This allowed ample time to walk around the pit lane and check out some of the pre-race festivities going on.
While I had no special press access for this particular event, I was still impressed by the accessibility NASCAR offers to normal race fans. Just seeing the pit box setups, spare parts and race haulers was pretty damn cool.
I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff during my time as a Speedhunter, but it was still a little surreal being right there amongst the race cars and drivers that are on my television every Sunday.
I also got distracted by this radical clone of Richard Petty’s Plymouth that was on display in the vendor area. There was plenty of inspiration for Project Yankee to be found here.
After wandering around for a little bit, we took our seats for the start of the race. Yeah, it’s fun to watch on TV, but the sound of 40 Sprint Cup stock cars taking the green flag at Sonoma was just unreal.
And thus began the 110 lap battle that’s better known as the Toyota Save Mart 350. The atmosphere was about as far from NASCAR’s Southern circle track roots as you can get.
The hilly, varied nature of the Sonoma course means there’s plenty of different vantage points to catch the action from – it just depends how far you want to hike.
Watching a NASCAR race on a road course is just so entertaining. It’s so wrong and yet oh so right.
All of the things that the critics complain about – the weight, the lack of technology, the low downforce and more – are exactly what make NASCAR road racing so great. It’s a true challenge for the drivers and an absolute joy to watch.
The Sonoma race is always one of the most interesting events on NASCAR’s long calendar, and there were a number of fascinating storylines heading into Sunday’s race.
Toyotas have dominated the Sprint Cup so far this season, and Carl Edwards put his Camry on pole for Sunday’s race. Last year’s winner Kyle Busch was another favorite to take the win.
Denny Hamlin would also be a strong contender; he was hoping to achieve his first ever road course win to go along with the Daytona 500 trophy he picked up earlier this year.
And racing for the first time at Sonoma was rookie Chase Elliot who pilots the #24 car for Hendrick Motorsports after Jeff Gordon retired last year.
And speaking of retiring, driving at Sonoma for the final time on Sunday was Tony Stewart, who will hang up the helmet at the end of the year. Tony went into the event having had a pretty dismal season so far; he’s missed many races after a back injury during the off season and was considered a long shot to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Sonoma and NASCAR are just the perfect match. The track has the technicality of a road course mixed with the close quarters, full-contact racing of a short track like Martinsville or Bristol. The curb jumping, the wheel hopping, the love taps – it’s all fantastic.
Amazingly, there were no real wrecks during Sunday’s race, but by the end of the 110 laps just about every car was sporting crinkled body work, big rubber marks on the side and plenty of other battle scars. Here’s Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car after some contact nearly destroyed his tire late in the race. Dale was having a great run and amazingly stayed on the track with his battered car and finished 11th.A Historic Finish
But that was absolutely nothing compared to the excitement during the closing laps. After a bold pit strategy, Tony Stewart found himself in the lead with 14 laps to go, trying to fight off a charge from a trio of Toyotas behind him.
You may have already seen this video, but this is how the end of the race went down. On the final lap Stewart was trying to hold off second place Denny Hamlin’s #11 Toyota, and Hamlin overtook Tony in Turn 7; a pass that looked like it was going to stick. But amazingly, Stewart kept on the pressure. In the final hairpin, Hamlin locked up his front wheels and overcooked the corner a bit. This opened the door for Tony to drive inside, push Hamlin away and take the checkered flag.
It was an incredible finish. Tony Stewart won his first race in three years and put himself back in contention for the championship during his final season.
And of course, ‘Smoke’ celebrated this emotional victory with one hell of a burnout. How can you not love this comeback story?
I’ve got no problem at all with the ovals that NASCAR runs, but the experience at Sonoma got me wishing that they would add more road courses to the Sprint Cup schedule. How awesome would it be to see these cars on the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca or at the stunning COTA facility in Texas?
There was even time before the train left to walk over to Victory Lane to watch Tony’s celebration. Indianapolis might have its milk, but Sonoma has its wine – and it’s so sweet. Once again, I was impressed with the kind of access that regular fans have at a NASCAR race, able to get right up close during the post-race celebrations.
And then rather than fighting the endless traffic leaving the track after the race, it was nice to climb back onto the train and relax in air conditioned comfort on the ride back to Sacramento. The track, the scenery and a finish for the ages – my first trip to NASCAR at Sonoma was a fine experience all around.
I’m thinking the next time NASCAR makes its stop in Northern California, I’ll head up there with a full arsenal of photo equipment and some proper credentials.
What can I say? I’m truly hooked.