Blue skies over Sonoma, now that's more like it (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
It may be time for Bruton and Marcus Smith to reopen this track's famed carousel -- aka Kulwicki's Korner, for stock car acrobatics the late NASCAR champion once displayed there.
Nothing like the blind downhill run, with some good wheel-hopping bumps into a wild-braking downhill 180, to liven up things for these drivers, most of whom have never experienced the full flavor of that part of the Smiths San Francisco Bay race track.
Think two more really exciting passing zones...on a track that has precious few places to get around someone.
The Smiths eliminated the carousel part of the two-mile road course, in order to improve sight lines for a huge new grandstand area on the backstretch esses, although that section of the track is still used in other races here.
If necessary, add a few of those giant Sprint Vision TVs....
Marcus Smith likes the idea: "That's a great idea...and a great question. We're open to all kinds of things; we're always trying to push the limits for the fans.
"One of the challenges is that adding the carousel would add quite a bit of length to each lap.
"But we're open to all kinds of ideas, and if that's something we need to consider, we'll certainly consider it."
Jeff Gordon, and he's not the only one, likes the idea of reviving the carousel corner: "Oh yeah, I loved it. I always loved it.
"I'm not a big fan of turn four, what we have now.
"I thought the carousel was great, a lot of fun, another passing zone...which I feel we desperately need. It's so hard to pass here -- and that carousel was tricky and very challenging.
"It's an exciting part of the track."
left, right, left, right, brake, brake, brake.....Marcos Ambrose working the esses (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Sunday's SaveMart 350 is already the shortest race on the tour by far, at just 218 miles.
This run should also be one of the most vicious races of the season, if the past few events here are any indication. The Payback 350? Marcos Ambrose, who starts from the pole and who is one of the sport's most aggressive drivers, says this is a great place to even the score.
Maybe we need to recheck the scorecards for the season and see who owes whom....
Or then this may be another 'strategy race,' as Denny Hamlin predicts. A team that plays it just right may be able to make the distance on just two fuel stops.
It doesn't seem likely that fresh tires will overcome track position. This is the Martinsville-Watkins Glen tire setup, and drivers might want even more grip up off the corners than they're getting.
Perhaps the Smith's ought to reconsider the distance -- and the addition of the carousel -- so this race won't be another gas mileage game.
Ol' Smoke has his game face on every lap here. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One wild card here, certainly a wild card last summer, is Brian Vickers, fresh back from the 24 Hours of Lemans:
"It took me a few laps to get used to a 3500-pound car with 900 horsepower again, and no traction control.
"I've really enjoyed my time in Europe racing road courses and having the opportunity to drive so many amazing cars on amazing tracks. The good news is I've learned a lot about road racing; the bad news it's in a very different race car.
"Some of it will help me through the weekend, some of it I have to unwind."
With no word at all from Dodge executives about their plans, if any, for NASCAR 2013, and with Richard Petty's Ford contract up at the end of the season, Ambrose is suddenly one of the hottest drivers on the tour. Is he trying to help Petty and the other owners show Ford it needs to renew? Or is he trying to show Chrysler-Dodge bosses that he can bring them headlines if they offer a package?
The silence from the Chrysler-Dodge side is deafening.
And it's nearly the first of July. If the Daytona 500 is the first game out of the box, Dodge bosses need to get their house in order, and quickly. At this point, so late, it would seem that any prospect of Michael Andretti jumping into the NASCAR game -- and having a fleet of 2013s and all those engines ready to go -- is almost nil.
Certainly NASCAR executives wouldn't want to lose Chrysler-Dodge, but it's unclear what game plans might be on their table in Daytona.
New tires here. But drivers always want more grip (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The shift for drivers from Michigan's mind-numbing 200-plus mph to these tight 90 mph corners and heavy breaking hasn't been easy for everyone. And the track has been quite dirty from drivers running off the course.
"I was more nervous running 90 here than I was running 200," Ambrose says. "You have to be really precise with your marks, and very aggressive, and carry momentum through these tight corners."
And maybe this place owes Ambrose one, for that embarrassing 2010 miscue that cost him the win.
"No, it doesn't," he insists. "I beat myself up here in 2010. It was me.
"I have got to make amends for that if I can. And with experience comes knowledge -- I know what not to do on the last restart."
Catch me if you can (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One of the disappointments here so far is AJ Allmendinger. He's a solid road racer, and he's in the car Kurt Busch won in here a year ago.
"I'm not sure what direction to go or what we're missing," Allmendinger says. "What we learned from testing isn't translating as we were expecting. The whole platform of the car seems unsettled."
For years this place was a haven for road course 'ringers,' sports car specialists who got the nod, because many NASCAR tour regulars simply didn't have a good touch here.
Now, that's changed dramatically. Not only are most NASCAR regulars excellent road racers, but 'ringers' don't even get top calls anymore, Jimmie Johnson points out:
Scott Pruett, Boris Said, Ron Fellows are some of the top road racers around, but they never quite had any solid run of luck against these guys.
"Those guys were 'go-to' for a long, long time," Johnson says. "They still have some opportunities, but not the top-tier stuff any longer."
Boris Said, one of the world's best road racers (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Part of the reason for the improvement is more road course testing, at Road Atlanta, Kershaw (S.C.), VIR and other courses.
Of course it might be even more logical for teams to actually be testing on the real tracks the tour races on.....and such test sessions would also be a good marketing game for selling more tickets.
Johnson, who qualified third, has become a top road racer the last two years, and he's certainly got hot equipment right now. In the early going Sunday the top three -- Ambrose, Jeff Gordon and Johnson -- should hold sway.
And longer too, if they can avoid getting caught up in the expected melees.
"Things build up when we get here, quite a few races in, and guys have had enough of being pushed around by certain guys," Johnson says. "We're going slow enough here, and close enough to one another, that if a guy who has been giving you a hard time for awhile comes across your nose, you're not going to back out of that hole. You're going to get into him.
"The final element is it's so frustrating to be blocked, and there are only two, maybe three, good passing opportunities... and if you get blocked a couple laps in a row, you are going to make sure that guy realizes he's blocking."
You could get some pretty good odds on Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Sonoma. He just wants a top-10 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tony Stewart says the start of the race and restarts are the most frustrating, with double-file. And he's starting deep in the pack, 24th, which makes the run up the hill at the green quite problematic.
At the other end of the track, the 'parking lot' 180, is troublesome too.
"You’ve got guys that will race each other, then you've got guys that will block each other," Stewart says.
"A guy works hard to make a run off turn 10, and he's done his job, what he's supposed to do... Then when a guy blatantly blocks.
"That seems to happen a lot here for some reason. I don't know why guys are doing it; they didn't when I started 14 years ago.
"It seems every year blocking gets worse."
Denny Hamlin agrees. And he almost seems resigned to problems Sunday. (But then Monday he gets a quick media trip up to Alaska, to cool off....)
"People don't give each other room like they used to... and everyone is more aggressive," Hamlin frets. "People talk about 'driver ethics,' but this is a very 'gray' track when it comes to that.
"I've been here and gained 10 spots at the end of the race because some moron plowed the field in front of me and took out six cars... and I've been in that 'six cars' at times.
"That's when you’re frustrated -- you had a good day, minding your own business, and you're part of someone else's wreck."
The rule, he says: "You don't want to be the moron."
After 2010, Marcos Ambrose says he's got a better end-game planned for Sunday's 350 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Matt Kenseth likewise see this track as a challenge, "to say the least for me.
"I started road course racing long ago, and there was always road course etiquette: You would only pass in certain zones, and when people got along side you to pass in those zones, you would drop back and fall in line and go on.
"You would really race the track the entire race, and race fuel mileage and tires, and try to be in position.
"But since the two-wide restarts, and this (new) car, that has really changed. All the etiquette is out the window, and you run side-by-side in places you were told not to before.
"It has really changed a lot.
"If you have wait for one car on the restart, you might lose eight or 10 spots before you know it.
"This has turned into the most 'no-holds-barred,' crazy, people-running-into-each-other race than any of the short tracks we go to."
And keep an eye on Kasey Kahne early (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)