Wednesday, Aug 17

NASCAR Celebrates 25 Years in Sonoma Wine Country

Saturday, Jun 15 1405

The idea of a major NASCAR race in wine country appeared to be a mismatch from the get-go 25 years ago, but fast forward to 2013, and the Toyota/Save Mart 350 has solidified itself as one of the most challenging and uniquely entertaining stops on the Sprint Cup Series schedule.

This year’s race, June 21-23, marks the 25th running of NASCAR’s top series at Sonoma Raceway. Some of the sport’s most legendary names have visited the Wine Country Winner’s Circle, and several memorable finishes mark the event’s history.

“It’s got deep roots with NASCAR now,” said two-time Sonoma winner Tony Stewart. “I think it’s one of those tracks that you just can’t imagine it not being on the schedule, and I think pretty much all the drivers and teams think of it that way.”

But in the late 1980s, when NASCAR officials were scouting out Northern California race sites for what was then known as the Winston Cup Series, Sonoma was not viewed as an ideal destination. A replacement was needed for Riverside International Raceway, another road course that hosted two Winston Cup races annually and would shut down after the 1988 season.

Ken Clapp, the longtime vice president of NASCAR’s West Coast operations, was instrumental in getting Sonoma Raceway (then Sears Point Raceway) built in 1968. But he and others were skeptical about it as a potential Winston Cup venue.

The general feeling was that any new track added to the schedule should be an oval. There also was the matter of location. Then-NASCAR president Bill France, Jr. was not convinced the Sonoma Valley was a match for his sport.

“I just don’t think that wine country up there is going to accept that kind of entertainment,” Clapp remembers France telling him.

But Clapp pointed out the promise of the Bay Area market. Sears Point was close to metropolitan San Francisco and relatively close to San Jose and Sacramento. NASCAR’s popularity in general was on the rise.

“(France) said, ‘Bottom line, I don’t know if we’ve got any choice,’” Clapp recalls.

So in 1989, Sears Point was granted one of the Riverside events. Phoenix International Raceway took over the other. Any worries about whether fans would embrace the new Sonoma race evaporated after the press release was sent out announcing the inaugural event.

“I’m telling you, the phones rang,” Clapp said. “’Where do we buy tickets? How do we get a hospitality tent?’ It was a huge turning point.”

The first race on June 11, 1989 set the tone for the exciting, aggressive driving that has marked the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Wallace and Ricky Rudd traded paint in the closing laps and Rudd held off Wallace by .05 seconds, still the closest margin of victory in the event’s 25-year history.

“I think because it was the first time being out there to race, there was a lot of anticipation of what to expect,” Rudd recalled. “I think a lot of fans hadn’t been exposed to cars going side by side – half on the dirt, half on the track.”

Rudd, who later won the 2002 Sonoma race for his final Winston Cup victory, was the prototype for the kind of driver who is successful on the winding, 10-turn track. He came from a go-kart background and thus wasn’t thrown off by non-oval racing – he was accustomed to making both left- and right-hand turns in a race.

Jeff Gordon is the undisputed king of Sonoma with five Cup victories at the track – 1998-2000, 2004 and 2006. Stewart has won the event twice, so did Ernie Irvan.

But this race is also noteworthy for the big-name drivers who struggled for years on the twisting layout before finally claiming the checkered flag. It took Dale Earnhardt until 1995 to win at Sonoma for his only road-course victory. That came 21 years into his 27-year Cup racing career.

Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson didn’t deny his struggles at Sonoma early in his career, and it took him until his ninth start at the track, in 2010, before he finally found the winner’s circle.

Kasey Kahne was established on the circuit before winning for the first time in Sonoma in 2009, and Clint Bowyer claimed his first victory at the track last season. Bowyer’s enthusiasm when discussing Sonoma Raceway matches Wallace’s.

“Sonoma is just one of my favorite tracks, and I can’t believe I’m telling you that because it’s a road course and I’m a dirt tracker from Kansas,” Bowyer said. “There’s so much emotion that goes into a road course because, obviously, you have to have speed and you gotta keep your car in position. But you (also) gotta stay on the race track. It’s just an emotional roller coaster.”

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