SONOMA, Calif. -- A few began in Legends cars, a couple in motorcycles, others in quarter-midgets or go-karts. The backgrounds of the Sprint Cup drivers who have won over the past decade at the road course in Sonoma are as varied as the men themselves, an assortment of disciplines that proves the route to mastering these twisty circuits can be as serpentine as the layouts themselves.
It certainly makes things more competitive, as we've witnessed recently in breakthrough victories by drivers who had little to no road racing on their resume. Kurt and Kyle Busch? They cut their teeth on oval short tracks. Jimmie Johnson? On dusty off-road motorcycle and truck circuits. Kasey Kahne? In skeletal sprint and midget cars. The level of improvement on road courses among rank-and-file NASCAR drivers has been so dramatic, it really does feel now that anyone from that elite tier can win. Marcos Ambrose may start from the pole Sunday, but ex-road racers no longer hold a decided advantage. The raceway at Sonoma may be laid into the side of a hill, but the playing field has been leveled considerably.
Of course, this across-the-board road-course-prowess does muddy the waters considerably when the subject turns to the best way to develop it. Much like the tracks -- which force drivers to crank the wheel left, then right, maneuver over hills, through chicanes and around hairpins -- there appears no direct way to get there. It's not like every driver who has prevailed at a Cup road course has some road racing in his background; in fact, it's often the complete opposite. Road racing stars like Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones may have dominated the early days at old Riverside International Raceway at the opposite end of the Golden State, but since then traditional stock-car drivers have taken hold of these tracks and refused to let go.
And they've done it despite marked differences in their backgrounds, some of which would seem to make them ill-prepared to traverse bus stops and carousels. Two of the best NASCAR road racers ever, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, came up racing late models on short tracks in the American Speed Association -- hardly the kind of development that would seem to foster greatness on road courses. Johnson thought his off-road experience would pay dividends for him when he first started racing on road circuits, and he found the exact opposite to be true. If there's any kind of common thread as to what makes a great road racer, it's buried deep within the fertile soil of the Sonoma Valley.
"I think it is just something in the genes," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "Some guys, Rusty Wallace was real good at it. He came from ASA. Ricky Rudd was real good at it, but he ran a lot of go-karts when he was young, maybe on road courses and stuff I assume. It's hard to say. There are guys who are really good at it with little explanation as to why, and then there are some guys with a lot of background and good rhyme and reason as to what makes them talented at road courses. I think it is either a niche you have or you don't. You can go to Bondurant and places like that and get speed and find your inner Boris Said.
"It is kind of like being able to play golf well -- it's something you have to do all the time. If you neglect it or don't take it seriously, you won't be good at it. You can't just pick up a bag of clubs and go hit every four months and think you are going to play a good round. It's something you have to practice to be good at."
That's certainly how Jeff Gordon did it. NASCAR's all-time road-course winner with nine victories, Gordon started out racing quarter-midget cars at the Solano County Fairgrounds just down Highway 37 in Vallejo. From there he moved to Indiana and emerged as a star in the U.S. Auto Club ranks. Although he raced some go-karts, there is absolutely nothing in Gordon's background that hints at the great road racer he would become -- other than gratification he got out of it, and the sheer work he put into it.
"I just love the challenge. I think it's exciting and fun to be able to attack the corner into the braking zones while you're downshifting and have to throw the car left and right and over the curves. I was excited from the beginning of that challenge, where I think some people are really not looking forward to that challenge. I think that the guys that enjoy the challenge are usually the guys that improve and maybe even excel at it," Gordon said.
"It's just something I worked on. I wanted to be good on the road courses, so I worked on it with all that I could do. I came out here to the driving school they had here in 1993 before I raced here. I've been to Bob Bondurant, I've been to all those, and then just testing and working with my team back with [former crew chief] Ray [Evernham] with what we needed to go fast on road courses. The first year I came here, I was in that tire wall when we had the boot. It didn't all happen naturally the first race."
And yet, looking at the list of winners at Sonoma and the other active Cup road course, Watkins Glen International, you have to wonder if drivers who came up in the most traditional stock-car route -- driving late model cars -- are at something of a disadvantage. No driver who started out in late models has won at Sonoma since Martin's last victory here in 1995. At the Glen, Kevin Harvick is the only former late-model driver to win in the last 16 years. That might help explain why Earnhardt, who started racing late models around the Carolinas and has struggled on road courses, has yet to record a top-10 finish here.
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Except that he doesn't agree with it. Neither does Denny Hamlin, another former late-model driver who was runner-up at Watkins Glen in 2007, and actually sees some similarities between a road layout like Sonoma and the short tracks he grew up on. "It's difficult, but it's a lot of short-track racing," he said of the transition. "It's different turns, left and right. It's the downshifting part and maximizing your braking that you have to get used to if you don't grow up doing this type of racing."
And even the archetype late-model racer, seven-time champion Richard Petty, won five times on the old Riverside course -- even though he often slid through the track's dirt runoff areas to do it.
"I came from dirt tracks," Petty said, "so when I had a chance to run into the dirt, I did at Riverside. ... I had to do what I thought I had to do at that time to win the race."
Johnson wondered if a background in go-karts might play a role, given that Gordon, Harvick, and six-time road course winner Rudd are among those who raced karts in their youth. But Brian Vickers started in go-karts as well, and struggles to see a connection since he didn't race them very often on road courses.
"Maybe it's just the style of racing -- car control," said Vickers, piloting the No. 55 car for Michael Waltrip Racing this weekend. "Just the ability to adapt and learn something new. But I don't think there's any consistent pattern."
Ultimately, everything seems to come down to acumen, effort and the pressure to keep up. "You don't want to be the guy that is not very good at it and give away ... 20 points on a particular weekend when you come here," Harvick said. "I think you have to go test and the team has to put effort into the cars. There are just not too many guys. Even the guys that aren't good at it are good at it now. They may not be great, but they are competitive and can put themselves in position to have good finishes. I think a lot of it is the approach has changed a lot over the years."
Hamlin agreed. Whether they come from Legends or late models, off-road or go-karts, USAC or ASA, excelling on road courses is all a matter of adaptation.
"Any given driver out here, everyone is so good and can be fast with the fastest race car," he said. "I just think no one particular race background sets you up for success on road-course racing. I just think some drivers adapt to it and figure it out quicker than others."
- Jeff Gordon