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What's NASCAR's History In California Wine Country?

Sonoma County is home to some of the most complex, layered and thrilling sensory experiences. And that's just at the raceway. 

By Andrew Woodin
Next on Race for the Championship: Episode 6

Oenophiles and vino aficionados might all clamor to set their palates aflame with the latest floral-noted Gewürztraminer inside the limestone walls of Gundlach Bunschu’s subterranean tasting room in Sonoma Valley, but if imbibing wine isn’t your bag, there may be something else among the valley's rolling hills that could capture your imagination: Sonoma Raceway.

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Originally known as Sears Point Raceway from 1967 to 1980 and 1982 to 2002, Sonoma Raceway’s an indelible road course nestled across a sprawling 720 acres of Marin County, cared for by the nearly 4,000 sheep who feast upon its grasses under the daily glow of a majestic, Golden State sunset. As romantic as that notion sounds, make no mistake about it, this puppy’s one beast of a track.

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Not only does Sonoma feature an intimidating 12 curves, the uniquely serpentine track just 30 miles north of San Francisco snakes up and down the pitched landscape while shifting 160 feet in elevation from the apex to its lowest point. Considering NASCAR drivers turn left nearly 94 percent of the time, predominantly turning right feels awkward and can obscure a driver’s vision based on the degree of the bank. It’s a challenging, complex labyrinth that reduces speed demons to mere mortals, forcing them to travel at an average of 77 miles per hour. While such a pedestrian number might sound boring, think again.

Known as "The Carousel," the track’s signature head turner highlights just how extraordinary Sonoma Raceway’s 2.5-mile-long track is. From one hairpin turn to the other, this asphalt gauntlet features a mix of high-speed turns beginning in turn four, ebbing and flowing in length and curvature until drivers whip around the devilishly sharp turn seven that slingshots them in the opposite direction. This nerve-racking portion is so difficult to maneuver that NASCAR brass excluded it from 1998 to 2019. Since its revival, the perplexing yet exhilarating segment requires double-digit shifting and intense braking every lap. In essence, it’s a nightmare for drivers and especially pit crews because, as Tyler Reddick has noted in the past, there’s a learning curve, and strategic tire management becomes vital to the success of any driver here.

Daniel Suarez, driver of the Onx Homes/Renu Chevrolet, celebrates by pouring wine on himself in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series

“Even though it’s my home track, today was the first time I’ve even seen Sonoma Raceway, so it was a big learning day for me,” Reddick revealed to NBC Sports after placing 19th at Sonoma last year. “It took me a couple laps at the start to learn how to pass on this course. … Unfortunately, I had a tire rub after contact that caused us to pit for tires and burn one of our sets early. From that point on, we had to adjust our strategy to try to make it to the end of the race with the tires we had left.”

“I just made the most of it,” Reddick added. “It’s frustrating to be way better than where we finished, but sometimes that happens, and we did what we could.”

Sonoma’s intrinsically problematic nature is daunting for most oval-centric drivers, and though the five-time Sonoma winner “Wonderboy” Jeff Gordon – a native of nearby Vallejo – won three straight races there from 1998 to 2000, repeat victories in wine country don’t come often. Despite the drivers’ all-but-certain race day jitters at Sonoma, Kevin Harvick knows that’s the last thing fans are thinking about.

"These are the types of events where, honestly, nobody cares about the race except us," Kevin Harvick joked in 2018. "Everybody has a hell of a time when they come to Sonoma, because they can bring their wife, bring their friends, and the sponsors all come, and we have big events. It could be the best race you've ever seen at Sonoma or the worst race, but everybody is going to have a great time."

For others like Kyle Larson, Sonoma’s juggernaut of a track serves as a painful reminder for the Elk Grove native who considers it his hometown course. Though he won his fifth straight pole for the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway this summer with a dizzying lap of 92.111 miles per hour, Larson, who’s usually a road course warrior, saw his chance of repeat victories at Sonoma squashed this year after an improperly installed wheel came off his car. Late in the race, that wheel dismounted just short of turn two, and onlookers watched as it roll-bounced into the infield. After limping into pit road, “Young Money” licked his wounds and managed to eke out a disappointing 15th place finish. In addition to the lackluster finish, the incident morphed into a costly penalty after NASCAR suspended Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels and two crew members for the next four races. 

It’s not all heartache and heartbreak in the land of cabernets and pinots. Despite the frustration many wheelmen must manage while contending with Sonoma’s troublesome track, in 2022, wine country’s fabled raceway delivered one of NASCAR’s all-time most memorable moments with Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suárez becoming the first Mexican driver to win in the Cup Series. His historic victory marked only the fifth win in the Cup Series by a foreign-born driver.   

“It’s a crazy day, and I have so many thoughts in my head right now,” Suárez noted after his historic win. “I mean, it’s been a rough road. It’s been a rough journey in the Cup Series. I’m just very happy we were able to make it work.”

So next time you’re sipping on a foxy, full-bodied red, raise your goblet or chalice to the cork dorks and cellar rats responsible for the vintage’s sublime juicy mouthfeel. Just don’t forget to toast the fellas trading paint as they battle it out on one of NASCAR’s most arduous courses.

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