The list of drivers mad at Jeff Gordon leaving Infineon Raceway a year ago was extensive: Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Elliott Sadler, David Ragan and Clint Bowyer. From green flag to the checkered, Gordon made like a bull in a china shop, leaving in his wake a bevy of hurt feelings.
Afterward, Sadler surmised that Gordon was "pressing 'cause Jimmie Johnson's been kicking his butt so bad the last few years, and he feels like he's on his last leg."
That's debatable. What's not is that road courses, particularly Infineon, produce the most contact-heavy racing on the Cup circuit – more than Bristol's bull ring, even more than Martinsville's compact quarters – and Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 will be no different.
One reason, drivers say, is double-file restarts. Before, the top cars lined up single file and drove that way into the corners. But with double-file restarts, cars battling for position are lined up side-by-side and refuse to give up ground.
"Everyone is fighting for spots and you run side-by-side on corners; you would never dream of doing that a couple of years ago," Matt Kenseth explained. "It has really changed a lot. It is like going to Martinsville, only worse."
What makes it especially difficult, according to Juan Pablo Montoya, is that drivers on the inside lane "lean" on the outside cars to get through the corners. Those on the inside drive into corners at speeds they know they can't carry alone, but can with the help of a moving retaining wall (a.k.a. a fellow competitor) on their outside.
"I think itâs worse than a short track," Montoya said. "A short track you can still spin around a lot easier. Here you can lean on people and people will lean on you a lot more and use you a lot more. So youâve got to be prepared for that.â
This is especially true in the middle of the pack, where drivers are trying to figure out how to pass a car that's running nearly the same speed as they are. The tight box that NASCAR has put teams in means no car is significantly faster than another. As a result, drivers have a choice: Be content with where they are or resort to other means to make a pass.
"Anymore, … 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 [use the] eight-tires-are-better-than-four mentality and hope that you make it," said Jimmie Johnson, last year's Infineon winner.
The result: frustration levels rise, tempers flare and one dive bomb begets another and another.
"When youâre in the center of the pack," Johnson continued, "itâs 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 weâre going to see it."
When asked about his performance in last year's race, Gordon called it a disaster, then thanked the questioner for reminding him about it. While he took responsibility for some of the carnage he caused, he made a point of noting that not all of it was the product of bad judgment; that success at Infineon hinges on driving aggressively when trying to make a pass and being equally as aggressive when someone's trying to pass you.
"You have your bad days; you have your moments of beating and banging," Kurt Busch said. "It's one of those things where the lines keep getting drawn further and further towards the aggressive side here at Sonoma."