By Jerry Bonkowski
Without sounding sexist or prejudicial to female drivers, but to borrow an old saying, I’ve always felt road course racing truly separates the men from the boys in NASCAR.
You can be the one of the greatest and most successful drivers on ovals, but it doesn’t mean you’re equally as good on a twisting and turning road course layout.
Don’t believe me? I have the perfect example for you: seven-time NASCAR Cup champion and future NASCAR Hall of Famer Jimmie Johnson won 83 races in his Cup career. Would you care to guess how many of those were on a road course?
If you don’t know it already, the answer will shock you: just once, at Sonoma Raceway in 2010.
I’ll extrapolate that even further: Johnson has made 18 starts to date in his “new” major racing career since retiring from NASCAR, namely, in the NTT IndyCar Series. And with the exception of a sixth-place finish at Texas – on an oval, obviously – his best finish on a road course has been 17th (twice).
The moral of that story: if a guy isn’t a good road course racer in one series, it’s very likely he’s not a good road course racer in ANY series.
Which brings us to this week’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway, one of my favorite tracks on the circuit. And as a quick aside, it’s the ONLY race track in the country that has a fleet of grass cutters unlike anywhere else: several thousand sheep and goats (no, we’re not talking about the other kinds of goats, namely, the greatest of all time) roam the undulating hills and hundreds of acres of grass to keep things cut short and looking neat and tidy whenever Fox Sports airs the races from there on TV.
But getting back to what folks come there for in the first place, namely racing, historically, I always look forward to the Cup Series’ return each year to Sonoma because, to me, it brings out the best of the best – in the best.
Guys like Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. (a three-time winner at Sonoma, by the way), Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Hall of Famers Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, and the most recent winner at Sonoma last year, Kyle Larson, historically have put on true shows of racing expertise, able to take their cars and not only turn left like they do at every other race track, but also turn right, flying around hair-pin turns, through chicanes and oftentimes make hold-your-breath passes at places on the track where passing is oftentimes next to impossible (and let’s not forget they have to pit their cars from the opposite side of pit lane, the right side rather than the left side).
That’s why I enjoy road course racing so much. It truly does separate the men from the boys. Road course races also take race and pit stop strategy to the next level, oftentimes leaving crew chiefs on pit boxes eventually as worn out after a race as the guy they direct behind the wheel.
And road course racing has obviously become a fan favorite. That’s why NASCAR has increased the number of races in recent years, to the point where this season six – one-sixth of the 36 points-paying races on the Cup circuit – are on road courses.
Part of the reason for the expansion in the number of road course races is that fans seem to get cranked up even more, even though they can’t always see the entire track layout like they can at oval tracks like Daytona, Talladega, Texas, Kansas, etc.
I remember about 20 years ago, when guys like Harvick and Johnson were just starting to make their mark in the Cup Series, how much they and so many others hated – absolutely HATED – racing on a road course.
Their philosophy was get to the track as late as possible, run the race as quick as possible, and then get the heck out of Dodge equally as fast as possible.
And invariably, if they were involved in an on-track incident in the race that knocked them out early, I witnessed far too often how quickly those drivers were already headed toward the nearest airport, not waiting to stick around to see how their teammates fared or how the race eventually played out.
And let’s not forget how teams would often bring in so-called “ringers” to fill in for certain drivers who had, shall we say, horrible road racing skills. Guys like Boris Said and Ron Fellows were always in high demand.
But a funny thing happened eventually. Rather than bring in ringers or team owners having to just endure how bad their Cup regulars were on road courses, instead, those owners sent their drivers to school, brought in coaches or had their drivers log overtime on computer simulators to improve their overall road racing skills.
And you know what? It worked – well for most drivers, but not all. There’s still some guys today who would probably do better around a road course in reverse than going forward. But that’s a story for another day.
So when Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 kicks off Sunday afternoon at bucolic, twisting and turning Sonoma Raceway, get ready for one of the most exciting and action-packed races of the year. The place and the race never seem to disappoint!
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski