SONOMA, CA - JUNE 26: Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, leads a line of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway on June 26, 2011 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Remember when NASCAR's three short tracks used to provide the guaranteed drama, tempers and full-contact racing that some race fans crave?
Those days are largely gone now, and fans seem to have noticed (see: Bristol attendance). But that type of racing still exists in what was once an unlikely venue for such action: NASCAR's two road courses.
The first road-course event of 2012 arrives Sunday at Sonoma, and the drivers are bracing themselves for what's become perhaps the one race that practically guarantees someone will be angry with someone else.
Don't believe me? Just ask the drivers.
"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," Matt Kenseth said.
"This is probably our roughest race that we go to throughout the year now," Kevin Harvick said.
"Most of the wrecks that happen here just happen from people being idiots," Jamie McMurray said.
What gives? Didn't road courses used to be the tame, single-file parades fitting for the wine-and-cheese crowd? The answer is yes – but not anymore.
As recently as a few years ago, drivers would follow what Kenseth described as "road course etiquette." Everyone in the field knew there were only a few zones for passing, and if a driver got position to make a pass in those zones, then the other driver would drop back, fall into line and go on.
More than racing each other, the drivers would race the track. Fuel mileage and tires would often decide the outcome more than anything else.
It was civil, really. And kind of boring to watch.
But then came a new chassis and the double-file restarts that had a penchant for putting those chassis very close together for an extended period of time, and the next thing anyone knew? Fireworks.
Last year's Sonoma race featured incidents between Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers (twice), Robby Gordon and Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski and Juan Pablo Montoya. Watkins Glen was memorable for a disagreement between Boris Said and Greg Biffle.
"All the etiquette is out the window," Kenseth said. "You run side-by-side in places you were told not to before. It has really changed a lot."
As the day goes on, the aggressiveness on the restarts only escalates. Harvick said it's a matter of having to take the opportunity to dive in for position when it's there; McMurray said drivers "lose their mind" by trying to pass six rows of cars on the final restart.
"There are just more corners, you know?" Carl Edwards said with a grin. "When you get more corners, you get more opportunities to take advantage of each other."
In addition to the restarts, some drivers have little tolerance for blocking – even though blocking seems almost inevitable at this place.
Watkins Glen winner Marcos Ambrose – who enters the weekend as the Sonoma favorite – said drivers will "just get sick of (blocking) and dump you for it."
"It is a self-made rule and we police it ourselves," Ambrose said. "You just have to choose who you are racing against, what time of the race it is and be smart."
Of course, one driver's "blocking" might be another's "defending my line." It can be tough to say for sure which incidents happen because a driver lost patience while trying to make a pass and which happened because a driver was legitimately blocking. Sometimes, it might be both.
"You have to make those choices," Ambrose said. "If the guy behind you feels you have been a douchebag, he will get you out of the way."
Said Greg Biffle: "This track tends to create a lot of drama."
That might not be fun for the drivers, but for the rest of us? It makes Sunday's Sonoma race a must-watch.