Sunday, June 24, 2012

Easy going NASCAR race at Sonoma road course is uneventful in a good way

SONOMA -- A uniformed California Highway Patrolman was standing right around the corner here on Sunday. He could hear fast cars coming a few feet away but he was helpless to do anything about it. It was like the Illinois State Police trying to reel in the Blue Brothers.

Mr. CHP didn’t have a radar gun in his possession, yet even if he did he wouldn’t have been able to hand out speeding tickets as quick as the skee ball games at Scandia.

Mr. CHP was standing outside Turn One at Sonoma Raceway. He was an interested spectator, not a speed limit enforcer. He didn’t know it then but he was about to witness the cleanest NASCAR race in the 23-year history of the event at Sears Point.

It was about as trouble-free as Justin Bieber. There were only two cautions, one minor accident and no controversy.

“And I was happy about it,” said Tony Stewart, no stranger to controversy. “It made it fun. You could actually race guys one on one today.”

Normally the SaveMart 350 is long on cars being destroyed and duct tape being used to repair them. On this rare day, the winner, Clint Bowyer, posted the fastest average speed (90.569) in NASCAR race history at Sears Point – going nine mph faster than the previous record set by Ernie Irvan in 1992 – and the race finished in two hours, 39 minutes and 55 seconds, the quickest since the length of the event was increased to 350 miles in 1998.

In the old days of NASCAR at Sears Point, it took that long for some fans just to find a parking spot on race day.

By stock car racing standards, however, the drivers might as well have been driving the speed limit anyhow. They couldn’t go any faster than the 1.99-mile, 10-turn track would allow them and the remarkable thing about it is no drivers try to push it. They were as orderly as a fire drill.

“It felt like a genuine gentlemen’s road race today, but I wasn’t in the back,” said NASCAR bad boy Kurt Busch, who lately hasn’t been considered much of a gentleman in his first race following a two-race suspension.

Maybe the timing was right. A week after 19 NASCAR drivers topped the 200 mph mark in qualifying at Michigan International Speedway – the fastest and most furious foray in the sport in 25 years – the Sprint Car Chase encountered a different sort of track here on Sunday. Call it Slow-noma Raceway.

Surrounded by a carnival-like atmosphere that included a ferris wheel, fried Twinkies and fans one would never, ever see at a U.S. Open golf course, the starting field of 43 cars took a leisurely Sunday drive. The irony of it all is the race’s Grand Marshall was Tony LaRussa, who as a major baseball manager was notorious for slowing down the pace of the game with so many pitching changes.

The pace of Sunday’s race was treadmill-like. The first yellow caution flag didn’t come out until someone named Tomy Drissi spun out on the lap 83 of 110 laps. Drissi’s crew appeared in no great hurry trying to repair his car in the garage area which was so quiet you could hear a wrist pin drop.

At that point, the race was a battle between two drivers with new rides —Bowyer and Busch – primarily sponsored by energy drinks. Busch, masterfully steering a wounded car after hitting the tire barrier in Turn 11 that broke the front suspension and rear panel bar, bowed out and let Stewart pass him for second place. But Stewart ran out of time and laps to catch Bowyer, who was running so close to empty that his car ran out of gas during his victory donut burnout.

One might have expected the fastest celebration ever in Victory Lane to follow as well, given that Bowyer’s crew might have emptied their 5-Hour Energy Drinks in a Gatorade-dumping tradition on the driver’s head. That wouldn’t have taken long.

As it turned out the only difficulty Bowyer ran into all day was getting bottled water instead of celebratory wine to drink in the post-race press conference.

“It was the best race I’ve literally ever seen. The best race in the history of NASCAR,” Bowyer said, beaming. “I promise. That’s exactly how I feel.”

And so it was. For all the angst and aggravation that Sonoma road course has brought to the oval-track crowd in the past, this historic race was quick and clean and done before you knew it. No one got piled into and no one got pulled over.

No one saw that coming.


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