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.
Sonoma (Infineon, Sears Point) is one of the top five road courses in the states. Definitely on my bucket list. When Lemons races there they have 150 cars.
Great coverage, Mike!
On a side note, I really wish they ran a significantly improved aero packages for the road course. These cars could do sooooo much more with better aero. At least a prominent Splitter and Wing.
Those trains look pretty old, I tought US had better rail transport. I would've loved to travel in one of those old steam trains all along the Union Pacific cross-country railroad. Sorry for the off topic I know it's not Trainhunters but I like trains.
My Aunty Sophia recently got Chevrolet Suburban SUV only from working part-time off a home pc.
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90nissanS13@my350z Improved aero would lower their lap times for sure, but watching those stock cars drift their way down the hill, linking the corners and smoking the tires was something I will never forget. The low downforce packages make for a great show and really depend on the skills or the driver.
This weekend was the first NASCAR race I've been to. After a lifetime of talking smack about nascar, I am now a fan. Stock cars at sonoma is BADASS!
A year ago I used to follow Speedhunters, today I visit the site again... what the hell has happened? There is no actual motorsport other than the odd spits of IMSA and NASCAR, the visual style that set you guys apart, WHERE THE HELL HAS IT GONE???
Dear NASCAR, please listen here. COTA! Make it happen! And while we're at it, Sebring too.
NFNiTM Hi NFNiTM and welcome back. Sorry things aren't as you'd hoped, stick around and who knows you might find the odd article which isn't so much of a bro-fest. We try our best to keep things interesting,. good feedback tho'
Jeremiahori 90nissanS13@my350z Right ON! I'm a huge fan of NASCAR, it is just so base- they've done well to keep it that way
LouisYio Uhhhh, Sebring? YES.
Jeremiahori I was thinking Super V8, nothing DTM style. It would still be plenty of NASCAR crazy. I'm sure you have seen what a Touring Car race looks like. It is no where near boring.
I need to get to a NASCAR race considering I'm right near Daytona. Heck, I've been to a Drift event and I was never a fan of Drifting...Still not.
How the hell did you take this photo, wouldn't you have been on the train?
NFNiTM What are you talking about? This site covers everything related to four wheels and a motor. Offroad, drift, track, pro racing, foreign events, stance, car shows, home builds....shit I could name more. explore the site obviously you haven't.
@Moses Pretty sure there's more than one train. ;>)
EvolveWRC Our trains are dinosaurs, and Amtrak is broke as hell, begging for passengers. We drive. I've used them often, and this article shows how trains work well. But for the most part, Americans rarely use rail.
For someone just enjoying the day with friends, you took some fantastic photos Mike! And I have another great idea...you know how Long Beach had an extra week the course was up for Formula E? Now just add in the NASCAR and imagine the unholy symphony echoing down the convention center back straight....chills. And it's not like they would refuse the ad $$ NASCAR brings.
No, this is clearly devilry. Some sort of ethereal photography demon was clearly raised from the dark pits of hell to take the shot.
Well, I can think of some damn Speedy Trains... Maglev, Harmony CRH 380A, Agv, Simens Valero, T350, Shinkansen Hayabusa, The Euro Duplex, and ok, not the fastest by today's standards but the British Rail APT which is a personal favourite...
NFNiTM Nobody was reading the motorsport stories and they cost a shit tonne to produce. We still try our best and where we can though, if that counts for anything.
my Aunty Annabelle just got white Mitsubishi Outlander Hybrid from only workin part time on a computer. go>>
Been going to that race for 25 years. A total blast. Now imagine seeing back-in-the-day IMSA and Camel GT race here. As well as the Trans AM Audi's. When they still used the carousel!
Dont mention the camel gt and imsa gto stuff, i cry at the fact that i wasnt alive to even experience those races!! Lol long live Stuck!!
Mike, I liked your coverage of the event. I'm not a huge follower of NASCAR, but I do try and make it to the Sonoma event every year, they put on a great show. If you sit in the grand stands, you're really missing out on the best parts of the Sonoma event; walking around the track during the race & viewing from different locations. A general pass let's one wander just about anywhere around the outside of the road course.
Our rail "is" lacking out here, the equipment isn't bad but the track is all old freight stuff with no super elevation, still tons of wood ties and owned by Union Pacific and BNSF who determines operating speeds for AMTRAK. Like Mike mentioned it's a little slow but it's better than sitting in gridlock for 3 hours in the heat!
Mike, you need to make it out to the Indy car event in September, not to watch the Indy cars so much, but to check out the World Challenge cars, by far the best racing out there IMHO.
im am not huge into nascar but wasn't there a time when they contemplated added better aero? it was around 2010 I think, I could very well be wrong though.
I grew up in a family that loved Nascar but I haven't watched it in many many years, the first thing I noticed is how amateur and boring the liveries look now. No opinion on it, just an observation. Great coverage Mike, definitely convinced me to go next year.
@turnleft You won't regret it!
Colby O The late 2000s had cars with more aero, but the resulting racing was pretty crappy.
ohc We actually did wander around for a little bit. Would like to be there for the whole weekend next year. I really love the track, just wish I lived a little bit closer.
Mook Genius Man that would be so awesome to see. Best I can do now is the Monterey Historics.
D1RGE That would be so incredible to see.
@Moses That actually IS the train I rode. I took that photo when we got off after arriving at the track.
LouisYio Yes yes yes.
EvolveWRC Most of the long distance trains in the US are still Diesel powered. California has been working on a high speed rail system for a while now, but it's still quite a way off.
90nissanS13@my350z Jeremiahori I actually like the overall sketchiness of the slower aero package.
Chri5 Duncan Such a contrast after to going to Lemons back in February and then NASCAR last weekend. It's a fine track indeed.
AM81 Thanks much!
I know every inch of that track from Forza 4 and Gran Turismo 4. It is on my bucket list of places to see along with Laguna Seca and Pikes Peak
LouisYio Would love to see NASCAR at COTA in Austin.
Oh yeah. I really, really need to catch a road race NASCAR event, and I'm moving near Watkins Glen in a few months so I will have no excuse.
LouisYio how bout Road Atlanta while we're at it?
Paddy McGrath NFNiTM I mean I was reading them What happened to that Jonathan Moore? He usually had some great quality motorsports articles.
That looked awesome. Luv your idea of more road courses maybe road atlanta?
the car was very good
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Tony!!!!!!! It's not racing if yer not rubbin'! Great change from normal coverage and great motivation for your Yankee Mike!