Road course racing has evolved and it’s now anything but ordinary

Chris Graythen

For a long time road course racing wasn’t the best showcase for NASCAR. But in recent years that trend has changed, and this weekend’s race at Sonoma should be one of the most competitive of the season.

Over the years a transformation has taken place in NASCAR.

The metamorphosis has seen road courses evolve from ordinary affairs with the same drivers winning, to a highly entertaining madness rivaling the unpredictability normally associated with restrictor-plate racing.

No longer are the two Sprint Cup Series events at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International viewed by fans with trepidation. Instead, they're among the more anticipated races of the season.

In large part the increased popularity of seeing drivers compete on a road course is due to the style of racing exhibited.

Races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen in recent form have produced a great deal of side-by-side racing where drivers beat and bang as if they are on a local Saturday night bullring.

In essence, road course racing is not much different than short track racing with the only exception being that the drivers have to turn both left and right.

"I love racing (at Sonoma), but it's a short track road course," Brian Vickers said during a teleconference earlier in the week. "I think the pros and cons come along with that. You're almost inevitably going to come out of there mad at someone and someone mad at you, and you just hope it's not too many and they're not too mad.

"The field is so tightly packed and so competitive, you're inevitably going to run fenders with somebody. There's just no way around it, and you try to race as hard and respectfully as you can."

If any driver would be able to compare navigating around the 1.9-mile, 12-turn Sonoma circuit to racing at Bristol or Martinsville, it would be Vickers. Two years ago he was involved in a high-profile confrontation with Tony Stewart.

It started when Stewart had grown tired of Vickers blocking him and spun him deliberately. Vickers later retaliated and the on-track fracas culminated with the backend of Stewart's car sitting atop a tire barrier.

This was one of several instances over the years that have increased the excitement level in a race that was often devoid of memorable moments.

Another factor in the change of opinion towards Sonoma is the same drivers no longer win regularly. In a nine-race span from 1998 to 2006 only four drivers were victorious, highlighted by Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart winning a combined seven times.

Now Sonoma brings out the unexpected with eight different winners in the last eight years.

This increase in parity is due to the more serious attitude drivers and teams have towards road course racing. For a long time the majority of the garage approached Sonoma and Watkins Glen with drudgery. It was something to be tolerated and nothing more.

That mentality has disappeared. Drivers in the Cup garage have embraced the challenges of road course racing and want to be viewed by their peers as well-rounded; as someone with the ability to conquer any kind of track.

"I think the cars are so good now and the drivers have gotten so good and have come around to road racing a little bit better," Greg Biffle said. "I think those things are some of the reasons why everybody is so competitive, and, in fact, we see oval track guys like Clint Bowyer and myself and others that run really good at road course races, and the road course ringers don't seem to do as well anymore."

This mindset has pushed many to venture out and hone their skill sets in other disciplines.

Since the turn of the century it is common to see NASCAR drivers compete in sports car races around the globe. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart are among the many racing at Sonoma this weekend who have also raced in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. And just last year, Vickers ran in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When you factor in that NASCAR has become the No. 1 destination for many drivers from IndyCar, Formula One or various other series, it only adds to the depth of the quality of racing.

"The road courses in my opinion in NASCAR have become great races," Vickers said. "I think more drivers have either come from road racing backgrounds and/or have done more road racing in sports car stuff through the years or just put more emphasis on running good. ... And you're seeing a lot more talent show up at those races, and out of teams that we have not even expected at times."

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