SONOMA, Calif. — The winding road course in Sonoma is a perfect fit with the serenity and peacefulness of the Northern California wine country.
All that charm went to the wayside last year when 43 stock cars abandoned the idea that racing around the twisting 11-turn, 1.99-mile Infineon Raceway requires finesse and patience.
What ensued was a demolition derby as drivers ran each other over, knocked cars out of the way and collected names for retribution. The man at the center of the brouhaha was Jeff Gordon, the prince of the valley.
"Disaster. It was just one of those terrible days where I made a lot of mistakes, no doubt made a lot of people unhappy and been trying to move on from it ever since," Gordon said of last year's race as the drivers return for today's Toyota/Save Mart 350. "Thanks for bringing it up, though."
Although the five-time Sonoma winner finished fifth last season, he left a trail of angry drivers, with Kurt Busch at the head of a line that included Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex and Elliott Sadler.
"It was an off-day for Jeff," Busch said. "He apologized to a handful of guys afterward and for some reason (he) pinpointed me, excluded apologizing to me."
Countered Gordon, "I've tried to apologize to the ones that I really made mistakes with. There were some racing incidents that went on that day that was just racing, and that you just move on and race one another however you race one another."
Busch, a year later, believes he was owed an apology.
Defending race winner Jimmie Johnson, the five-time reigning champion, said road-course racing breeds an aggression and style different from a regular race. NASCAR races on road courses twice a year.
"When you're in the center of the pack, it's just an energy that exists when somebody makes a questionable move on you and your excitement level goes up, and now you make a move on a guy and it just kind of breeds this style of racing and we're going to see it," Johnson said. "The passing zones, drivers are so aggressive in defending the passing zones and braking zones that you have to find a different way by or just bomb it in there and eight-tires-are-better-than-four mentality and hope that you make it."
It will be easy for tempers to explode today, which is why Kyle Busch is trying to take a more Zen focus into the race.
"You definitely have to be a lot more forgiving in different corners," Kyle Busch said. "There's a little bit of give and take out there in different areas and on particular points on the race track."
But Tony Stewart is willing to wager today will be exciting in a way he doesn't want to see.
"I can promise you, there will be a lot of guys that will just crash each other just because they think they can," Stewart said. "I'll bet anything I've got in my pocket that in the last two or three laps, somebody dumps somebody just doing something stupid. So there's no doubt in my mind that'll happen."