When Jeff Gordon talks about a homecoming at Sonoma Raceway, there’s a lot more to it than just the proximity to his native Vallejo.
From a racing standpoint, Gordon can return to the 1.99-mile road course secure in the knowledge that very little has changed from his early days at the track. And, interestingly, Gordon finds similarities between the meandering road course at Sears Point and NASCAR’s most venerable and shortest speedway.
“This track reminds me so much of Martinsville in the way in which very little changes here,” Gordon said before Friday’s opening practice in preparation for Sunday's race at Sonoma (3 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1). “From how you have to set the car up, tires, gearing—all the things that change so much at all the other big tracks, where aerodynamics are playing such a huge role, and track position.
“All these things that we talk about being so difficult and challenging as things evolve in the sport, this is one of those that has stayed constant.”
Perhaps that’s one reason Gordon has been so successful at the track closest to his home. In 22 starts dating to 1993, Gordon has accumulated a record five victories, 14 top fives and 18 top 10s. He has finished ninth or better in each of the last nine Sonoma races, a stretch that includes one victory (2006) and three runner-up results in the last four events.
This clearly is a case where familiarity breeds comfort.
“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,” said Gordon, who will race on Sunday at Sonoma for the last time as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver.
“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 learned quickly from a challenging first experience at the wine country track.
“When I go back to the very first time I was here, it didn’t go quite so well,” Gordon said. “I don’t know where I finished (11th), but I struggled. I got into the tire wall back when they had the carousel. Pretty much, I wouldn’t call it a flip, but ended up on my side and destroyed my car and went to the backup car.
“So it’s nice to know that things changed quickly after that first year. It was a real challenge for me and a lot of competitors out there. I really took that challenge on and really wanted to do well here and do everything I could, and the team did as well. That’s where things really started.”