Jeff Gordon Seeks Sixth Sonoma Victory

There’s always something about making that homecoming trip that might evoke feelings of nostalgia or a sense of pride with being at the place with familiar confines and faces. For Jeff Gordon, competing at the 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway is always a wonderful time to return back to his roots and to one of his most successful tracks in his storied NASCAR Sprint Cup racing career.

With five victories in 22 starts, Gordon has amassed an impressive track record at this unique road course.  In addition to those five wins (1998-’00, ’04, and ’06), he’s compiled nine additional top-fives and 13 more top-10 finishes which translates to an amazing eighth place average finish.  To say the least, Gordon knows his way around this California NASCAR racing course and it brings up the same mindset that he has for Martinsville Speedway, another track that he’s had tremendous success at in the Sprint Cup Series.

You put your left foot in, you put your right foot in...

“What I learned early on in my career at tracks like Martinsville and Bristol and on the road courses, especially this one, even more so than Watkins Glen because it’s a faster track at Watkins Glen, so aerodynamics play a bigger role, but here it’s about finesse,” Gordon said.  “It’s about being aggressive, but not too aggressive, finding grip in the tires and trying to maintain that grip. The speed falls off abruptly over a run so there is tire management and just being smooth and consistent that really pays off.”
Gordon’s experience at this track paid off in qualifying on Saturday, as he did not take to the race course immediately so that his peers could lay down some Goodyear Eagle radial rubber markings on the asphalt for optimum grip. Qualifying kicked off after the NASCAR K&N Pro West Series went on the track, which laid down bias play tires which have a different feel for the drivers on the black top track surface.

 

In all, Gordon posted a top-10 effort in round one and was fast enough to post the fifth quickest time in the second and final round of qualifying.  Starting in the fifth spot has been kind to the Vallejo, CA native, as he matched his efforts in 1995, 2000, and ’08.

On those three occasions, he’s finished third, first, and third.  Might a pattern be in the offing for today’s Toyota/Save Mart 350?  That remains to be seen but Gordon knows that he loves coming out to Sonoma and northern California.

Jeff Gordon getting some California respect and no, that isn't Richard Petty wanting his autograph.

“I love coming out here,” Gordon remarked.  “Not just because it’s home.  It is just so many things.  The weather, the wine country, family and I love this racetrack.  I’m thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to win here five times.  I’m thrilled to be here this weekend for the final time behind the wheel.  It has already been a very special, memorable one.”
Just like in his dominant years at the road courses, Gordon faces some tough competition in today’s race at Sonoma. Although Marcos Ambrose returned back to his roots in Australia to race in the V8 Supercars, the four-time Cup champion still has a formidable road course rival in AJ Allmendinger, last year’s Watkins Glen winner and today’s pole sitter.

“Well he ranks up there as much or more,” Gordon observed.  “He outran Marcos (Ambrose) at Watkins Glen last year, which I thought was extremely impressive because I had been racing with Marcos that weekend up until we had our issues.  And he was strong, he was really tough and I didn’t think anybody was able to beat him that weekend. The fact that AJ did, shows what his talents are on a road course.  I will say that this road course it takes a different type of driving style.

It could be a very exciting battle for the win between Gordon and Allmendinger in today’s race.  Both drivers were in last year’s Chase Grid and are in dire need of a victory to punch their ticket into this year’s championship rounds. Should this race come down to the Nos. 24 and 47 teams, it could be a very dramatic duel in which the victor will have earned their due to be a title contender this fall.

"I would say he is the guy to beat," Gordon said about AJ Allmendinger at Sonoma.

“AJ is extremely aggressive,” Gordon said,  “Nobody drives in the corners deeper than AJ does.  I think that at Watkins Glen that way of attacking the racetrack is very beneficial and definitely puts good lap times together and is tough to beat.
Here I think there is a fine line and balance between that.  I think AJ has the skills to be the fastest and the best here this weekend, certainly in qualifying.  Then it’s going to come down to executing that in the race. I would say he is the guy to beat.”

The win will definitely come down to who wants this race in the worst way possible.  Determined and hungry to right the ship in 2015, Gordon hopes to turn his season around at Sonoma in a year that’s only seen him score two top-fives and eight top-10’s after 15 races.

Frustration has been prevalent for the usual mild mannered racer and his team, as they’ve been somewhat mystified by their struggles and their somewhat puzzling days at tracks that they showed tremendous poise and strength at last season.

Recognizing that his No. 24 team needs to improve its speedway program, today’s race is absolutely pivotal for their chances to contend for the title and to put a bright, positive note in what has been a shaky final full-time Cup season. Sonoma is a place where mechanical grip is necessary and the balance between a cagey veteran and a confident crew chief will be absolutely imperative for a successful race day.

About 17 years ago, Gordon and his No. 24 team tested at Sonoma, CA as the then young gun racer had knocked on the door for wins at his hometown track.  However, he didn’t have that balance down right to beat the likes of Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin.

During that test, then crew chief Ray Evernham and Gordon worked feverishly to perfect that combination and as the late Benny Parsons noted during the ESPN telecast that year, a fan observed this test and told BP how unbelievable it was how Gordon and Evernham worked diligently to make that car perfect.

Jeff Gordon makes his way around the esses of Sonoma.

Championships aren’t won at Sonoma but it could definitely be discussed and brought up if crew chief Alan Gustafson and his No. 24 team can catalyze Jeff Gordon’s efforts in the pits during the race.  All weekend long, they’ve massaged and tweaked their road course car to be as fast and consistent as possible.

So far, it’s been backed up by a solid qualifying effort and now it’s all about putting together a truly stellar race from start to finish.  Perhaps today, Gordon finally returns back home not only to Northern California, but to the confines of Victory Lane with a nice sip of wine to boot after a Sunday afternoon drive.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it’s about anything with an engine and four wheels, you’ll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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