Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Making Right Turns in Wine Country at Sonoma

Before we get to NASCAR, I’d like to paraphrase the great Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in their iconic song “Anarchy in the U.K.”:

Anarchy for NAS-CAR

Track layout looks real bizarre

Road course, no oval, right turns

They’re going to Sonoma, with Pearn’s return

‘Cause they’re racing in

Wine countr-ayyyyy

OK, OK, I’ll stop — the original song has been stuck in my head since finishing FX’s new miniseries Pistol. But one could call it anarchy in terms of the type of track, with how different road courses are from the normal ovals and the fact that it’s just the second such layout this season; we’re nearly halfway through 2022 and Sonoma Raceway, along with Circuit of the Americas, have been the only two races featuring left and right turns so far.

It does kick off a summer stretch where the NASCAR Cup Series visits a road layout every few weeks: Road America takes place two weeks after Sonoma to kick off July, while the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course closes out the month and Watkins Glen International is just a few weeks after that.

I already wrote about the lost art of road course ringing this year ahead of COTA, so though that seems relevant this weekend (Joey Hand and Scott Heckert the only real ringers in the field outside of AJ Allmendinger) we’ll touch on a few other aspects of making right (and left) turns.

See also
NASCAR 101: The Lost Art of Road Course Ringing

This time, especially with the road course’s layout returning to the chute feature rather than using the standard carousel, let’s take a look at how dominance has been key despite changes to the circuit and some of the wildest moments in wine country.

Jeff Gordon truly excelled at Sonoma in the 2000s, winning three times in addition to his two wins the previous decade; his five total wine country triumphs are the most in NASCAR. Ricky Rudd scored a win, as did specialists Robby Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya; the latter scored his first career NASCAR victory.

Just under half (14) of the 32 Cup races at Sonoma have featured the winner leading half or a majority of the laps, and at least four others have come close. In fact, the previous three events (2021, 2019 and 2018, since the pandemic prevented a 2020 race there) have featured such a statistic: defending winner Kyle Larson led 57 of 90 laps last year, while Martin Truex Jr. led 59 of 90 and 62 of 110 circuits in back-to-back ’19 and ’18 wins, respectively. Percentage-wise, that’s 63%, 65.6% and 56.4% for those races. Dominance is a harbinger of success on hot afternoons in California.

That’s not to say that occasional chaos doesn’t unfold during races there.

Back when Sonoma was still known as Sears Point, the 1999 Save Mart/Kragen 350 featured a pair of bizarre flips (bookending the below video) from Steve Park and Ken Schrader, both of whom skidded off the track, hit the tire barriers and ended up airborne and upside down in turn 1.

Exiting the tight U-turn of corner 11, turn 12 sends the field into a very compact restart zone between two concrete walls, close-quarter racing for everyone involved, and then opens into a more expansive first corner.

John Krebs and Derrike Cope went beyond the track limits in 1994, Krebs’ car cartwheeling over a grass berm and rolling again before crashing back down onto its wheels.

Let’s not forget Tony Stewart, who exchanged paint with Brian Vickers in 2011 before the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota punted Stewart into turn 11 and the No. 14 ended up atop the tire barriers.

Chaos at Sonoma isn’t limited to the main three series, either. West Series driver Jeff Jefferson went for a wild ride back in 2008.

Sonoma is one of those tracks where races are either incredibly calm or have things hitting the fan every few laps. In just the span of several years in the past decade, it’s featured a number of notable moments:

  • Truex’s second-ever win and first in six years (2013)
  • The first victory of the year for Kyle Busch as he began his comeback from injury, which eventually ended in a championhip (2015)
  • Stewart’s final Cup Series victory, where he nudged Denny Hamlin out of the way for the win (2016)
  • A battle for the ages between Truex and Kevin Harvick, where Truex dominated overall but things came down to strategy at the end (2018)

We’ve only seen the Next Gen car on a road course once — COTA — and that event certainly had its exciting moments, with a three-way battle for the lead in the final corners giving way to Ross Chastain‘s first career victory. Sonoma’s an entirely different animal, with the hills of dry grass kicking up an opaque plume of dust anytime a driver has an off-road excursion.

This is all without mentioning Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, which marks the first time the division has been to Sonoma since 1998. The top five for that race is the ultimate throwback: winner Boris Said was trailed by Mike Bliss, Tony Raines, Joe Ruttman and Jimmy Hensley.

With all the competition in that series this year, and if the Cup season so far is any indication, dust will fly on both race days and it’ll be a wildly entertaining weekend in each of the 12 corners that Sonoma has to offer.

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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Kevin in SoCal

I don’t know why Sonoma keeps changing the layout. I prefer the carousel layout since seeing it again in 2019.

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