SONOMA, CA - JUNE 26: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, 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)
NASCAR turns right for the first time in 2012, tackling the Sonoma road course in Northern California. A who's-who of legends - including Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace - have won at the track.
A common question among ignorant non-racing fans attempting to be cute is "Why don't they ever turn right?" Hopefully those folks will tune into Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma and watch the racing on the winding two-mile circuit, because there will be plenty of right-hand turns throughout the 110-lap, 350-kilometer race.
Road racing has long been a major part of motorsports. Most single-seater divisions compete almost exclusively on road courses - that is, tracks that resemble a road with their combination of right and left turns - and the schedule for four of NASCAR's five major divisions include road races.
Sonoma joined the Sprint Cup circuit in 1989 as replacement for the old Riverside International Raceway. Ricky Rudd, one of the best road racers of NASCAR's modern era, claimed that inaugural event at what was initially known as Sears Point Raceway. The track carried sponsorship from Infineon Technologies from 2002 through earlier this spring, when the name was shortened to just "Sonoma."
A who's-who of NASCAR talents have taken victories at Sonoma. NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace each won there in their illustrious careers, and certain first-ballot Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and Mark Martin have also claimed wins there. Geoff Bodine, Davey Allison, and Kyle Busch - all likely to be enshrined in Charlotte eventually - are on Sonoma's wins list as well.
Strategy nuts love the annual trip to California's wine country, as a bevy of different pit agendas play out in the race. It isn't until the final car has made its pit stop and the race reaches its final 25 laps or so that a clear picture of who is running where and what their chances of winning the race might be. A driver that seemingly didn't have a prayer of a top-five finish is all of a sudden in a golden position, while a driver who ran up front or even led the race's first two-thirds can find himself languishing outside the top-10 on a track with precious few passing opportunities.
Survival is key at Sonoma. If a driver can avoid getting spun in one of the three slow, tight corners where not only most of the passing but also most of the action - in other words, stock cars pointing the wrong direction - takes place, he stands a good chance of gaining a number of positions from less fortunate drivers. On the flip side, a driver can spend the entire race in the top-10 and be well on his way to a solid result and a good points day, only to be spun and lose 25 positions or more as the field snakes past.
That's what makes Sunday's race truly a case of things not being over until they're over. Until a driver crosses the finish line to complete the last lap and his position goes in the record book, he is in danger of losing that spot and a whole lot more - even in the last corner, a tight right-handed U-turn.
Astute NASCAR fans will no doubt find the Toyota/Save Mart 350 an interesting afternoon of television, thanks to the variety of strategies and the fact that the race's complexion could change with any turn. Casual fans might not get their fix of cars racing at blazing speeds and wrecking in a shower of sparks and sheetmetal, but the novelty of watching the drivers do something they'll do only once more this season should keep them entertained.