KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Sonoma, Calif., is a vigorous grape-producing countryside at the center of the state’s robust wine industry, considered by many to be the birthplace of wine-making in the Golden State. Together with neighboring Napa, Calif., they produce what is widely regarded as some of the world’s finest wines. Playing no small part in placing Northern California in its esteemed place in the field of wine production was the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting, better known as the Judgment of Paris.
The Judgment of Paris was a blind wine tasting that pitted California’s best offerings against French wines, recognized by most of the world as untouchable, at least at the time. It wasn’t supposed to be a contest at all. California’s burgeoning wine makers were not supposed to be able to hold a candle to the superlative works of France’s finest, but those supercilious opinions couldn’t hold up in the field of play as California wines took first place in both red and white categories, laying the groundwork for the thriving industry that exists today.
Thirteen years after earning its place among wine-producing appellations, Sonoma was on the map yet again due to another competitive event. It was believed to be one more mismatch as it paired two worlds that could not have been more different – NASCAR and wine country. There was no panel of judges, and participants were in clear view when Sonoma Raceway hosted the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the first time on June 11, 1989. While on paper the two appeared to be an odd coupling, wine country and NASCAR have combined for some incredible shows during the last 25 years.
Enjoying the fruits of that successful match on more than one occasion has been none other than Tony Stewart, a two-time Sprint Cup winner at Sonoma who enters Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350k 10th in the championship point standings thanks to a four-race stretch that has seen him finish seventh, first, fourth and fifth.
The driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing has played a significant role in many of Sonoma’s exciting races. His name appears often in the track’s history books, and in the new-age history that is NASCAR’s loop data, Stewart ranks first or second in a number of statistical categories for the 1.99-mile road course.
Stewart has made 14 Sprint Cup starts at Sonoma, where in addition to his two wins (2001 and 2005) he has a pole (2002), three second-place finishes, five top-fives and nine top-10s. He has an average finish of 10.9 and has only failed to finish on the lead lap one time – the track’s 2011 race where the Indiana native ended up on the wrong end of a run-in with driver Brian Vickers with less than 25 laps to go. Stewart went from scoring a top-five finish to a career-worst road-course finish of 39th.
While Stewart’s traditional stats speak for themselves, an overview of his position in several loop data categories reinforces the fact that at the end of the day, Stewart’s road-course attributes make him a Road Scholar.
The three-time Sprint Cup champion leads all drivers in the categories of fastest drivers early in a run (90.375 mph), fastest laps run (79), green-flag speed (89.877 mph), laps in the top-15 (706) and speed in traffic (88.945 mph). He ranks second in average running position (9.983) and fastest drivers late in a run (89.437 mph) for an overall driver rating of 107.5 – a close second to Kurt Busch with the best overall driver rating of 107.8.
And Stewart’s road course success isn’t limited to the track in Northern California, as there is a second road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y., which plays host to the Sprint Cup Series in early August. Of Stewart’s 48 career Sprint Cup victories, seven have been won on road courses – two at Sonoma and five at Watkins Glen. While wins are what everyone remembers, the rest of Stewart’s road-course stats are remarkable on their own merit. Between Sonoma and Watkins Glen, Stewart has made 28 career starts in which he has 12 top-fives, 19 top-10s and has led a total of 307 laps to go with his seven wins.
Through the last 25 years Sonoma has earned its place in the annals of NASCAR history, serving as a true test of driver versatility. Stewart is the epitome of versatility, having won in nearly everything, from stock cars and Indy cars to dirt modifieds and open-wheel Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown cars. Just as Stewart has proven victorious on pavement and dirt, he’s proven to be a winner when a racetrack features left and right turns. In his 15th trip to the 10-turn Sonoma road course, Stewart intends to come out on top in the Judgment of Sonoma.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
This year marks Sonoma Raceway’s 25th anniversary. How important is it that NASCAR has raced in Sonoma all this time?
“It’s got deep roots with NASCAR and it’s one of those tracks that you just can’t imagine not being on the schedule. I think all the drivers and teams think of it that way. It’s a huge weekend. Teams really work hard on their road-course programs because of how challenging and difficult it is, and we have a partner in Mobil 1 who can attest to that. Their engine oil, chassis lubricants, gear oil – even their power steering fluid – help us shave time off our laps by reducing friction, heat and rolling resistance. They look at a lot of little things and it adds up to a big difference.
“I don’t think any of your full-time teams look at Sonoma as a weekend you have to get through to get on to the next thing. We’re at a point where teams put a lot of emphasis on the program. So for it to have a 25-year history like this, to see how much the competition has grown and how teams put way more work into it than they did say 10 or 20 years ago is pretty big. The track has really established itself as a unique race but, at the same time, it’s one that’s on the schedule that is circled and we look forward to racing.”
In those 25 years, is there a certain moment that is most memorable to you?
“You know, there isn’t really one. Every time you go there, it’s fun. It’s a fun track, great area and it’s really a perfect place to go and enjoy a NASCAR weekend. It’s an unconventional NASCAR weekend because it is a road course, but it’s one of the races I truly look forward to every year. It’s nice to get out of the box of what we do weekly, and Sonoma is an awesome, awesome racetrack that has a lot of history. It’s very challenging and that’s why drivers like it.”
You’ve had a tremendous amount of success at Sonoma. Why?
“I just like the road courses. I’ve always liked Sonoma. It’s really a driver’s track. It’s tough to make your car drive perfect all day. You can have a really good car, but it’s going to slide around and you’re going to struggle for grip, and that’s what makes it so fun. You have to do the work behind the steering wheel.”
What does it take to win at Sonoma?
“You’ve just got to have a good handling car. Aerodynamics are not the least bit important at Sonoma, which is great because it’s one of the few tracks that we go to that we don’t have to worry about aero balance or anything like that. It’s just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day and having good pit stops and pit strategy and staying out of trouble.
“A lot can happen at Sonoma. You’ve got to be patient all day. You get a lot of cautions there and a lot of guys end up beating and banging on each other. I mean, the cars look like they’ve been to a race at Martinsville (Va.) because it’s a short road course. Save that car for the last 20 laps because that’s the critical time. Do what you have to do to get through the first 90 laps, but those last 20 are the ones when you really have to go, and you need your car to be in one piece to make it happen.”
You have a pair of Sonoma wins. Was the first win more enjoyable than the second?
“Anytime you win your first race at a particular track it’s always a special moment. From day one, Sonoma has been one of those places we’ve really ran well, but we haven’t always had the best finishes there. We’ve been in crashes that have put us out or we’ve tried pit strategies that haven’t worked. For the most part though, at the end of the day, we’ve been one of the top-five guys as far as speed on the racetrack. That’s what makes that place fun. There are some drivers that can’t adapt to it and haven’t learned it. Then there are guys like myself that, from day one, have always really liked it and looked at the challenge of it as something really fun for us.”
Because road-course racing is such a different discipline, how do you approach it?
“I’ve just always liked it. I won a national championship racing go-karts on road courses, so the concept of what it took to win races on road courses wasn’t totally unknown to me, but driving cars with suspension, and definitely driving cars that you had to shift, that’s something that came relatively easy to me, and still comes easy to me as far as knowing how to synchronize the gears without having to use the help of the clutch. Even in the sports cars that I’ve driven with guys who have driven road courses all their life, I’ve gotten out of the car and the crew has torn the gearboxes apart and said that the dog rings in my transmission look better than when those guys are done with a transmission. There’s just something about the shifting side of it that’s been really natural to me, and it’s fun. I like having a different discipline to race on. I like having the opportunity to do something twice a year that we don’t get a shot at doing very often. I take the same amount of pride that someone like Ron Fellows or Scott Pruett does when they come into a road-course race. I take that same pride in running well that they do in these cars. I don’t look at it from the standpoint that it’s a negative weekend. I look at it as a positive, that it’s something we enjoy and I feel like that gives us a leg up on most of the guys we race with at these tracks.