NASCAR at Sonoma: Terror on Turn 11
Published: Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 6:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 10:47 p.m.
If they created a “CSI: Sonoma” to dissect crashes here, there would be a long lineup of Whos, Whens and Whys to investigate after every race. Wrecks can happen to any driver on any lap at this 1.99-mile road course, for every reason from equipment failure to miscalculation to road rage.
The Where would generally be easier to identify. More often than not, the mayhem presents itself at Turn 11, the extreme hairpin turn at the southern extremity of the track. It's where a NASCAR race frequently devolves into a county-fair destruction derby.
“A lot can happen down there, yes,” said Carl Edwards, who pilots the No. 99 Aflac Ford. “I've been the cause of wrecks, and the wreck that's been caused down there. If things are going well, if you've got a good brake package, if your car's doing well, it's like blood in the water down there. You can take advantage of guys and just get 'em. But if you're struggling down there, it's terrible. You dread it the whole way down through the esses.”
Remember these greatest hits? Denny Hamlin spinning out Martin Truex Jr. ... Tony Stewart nudging Brian Vickers and causing a seven-car spinout that knocked Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the race. ... Vickers exacting his revenge 44 laps later and bulldozing Stewart into a tire barrier, the No. 14 Office Depot Chevy suspended helplessly in midair with its tail end facing the track.
And those were just from last year.
Turn 11 is the crux of danger at Sonoma because it is also the land of opportunity. With its tight curves, elevation changes and narrow pavement, the course recently known as Infineon simply doesn't offer many places to get past the car in front of you. In fact, some would say it has only two real passing zones: Turns 7 and 11.
“The corner that creates the most drama is Turn 7 up top of the hill,” said Marcos Ambrose, who will drive from the pole position in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. “It's very slippery. One of the slowest corners on the track. A lot of contact is made there. Normally, the contact in Turn 7 gets finished off in Turn 11.”
Last year, Turn 7 was too slick to make safe passes. So two miles of competitive racing were funneled into one hairpin.
Turn 11 is a devilish point on the track, because it follows Sonoma's longest straightaway and opens onto another decent speed zone that runs up to the start/finish line. In between, drivers must slow to a crawl.
“The highest speed on the racetrack that you get here is basically just about coming off Turn 10, and then the slowest point is about right in the middle of Turn 11,” said Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Toyota), who also spun out Boris Said at Turn 11 in 2009. “So that moment of that distance from which you've got to slow down roughly maybe 100 miles an hour — people make a whole lot of mistakes. And so that's why there is all the action there.”
As legendary driver Rusty Wallace, who will be calling the Sprint Cup race for TNT, said: “You come off that last turn, coming off Turn 10 and sailing into that thing, and you're really wide-open driving, you're in high gear. Then you're downshifting to third, then to second, and you're all over the brakes.”
Drivers might even get into first gear in the hairpin.
The battle for Turn 11 starts in Turn 10, just after the esses. Turn 10, a more gently sweeping right-hander, has curbing at its inside edge. Kasey Kahne (No. 5 Farmers Chevrolet) noted that if you touch the curbing, it can help propel you through the turn — or it can loosen up the car and send you wide, and there's a fine line between the two.
“So how you get through there,” Kahne said, “depending on where your car is, you either take advantage or have to really go into defense mode in Turn 11, because people, they'll bomb you all day long down there if there's a shot at it.”
The ideal path through Turn 11, according to most drivers, is a shallow arc — come in fast, brake late, cut the corner and exit wide, nearly touching the wall on your way out. A car looking to pass will usually try to get under an opponent in the center of the turn.
“If you get a good run and the guy has to breathe the throttle a little bit, you want to shove it in there as quick as you can to try to make the pass,” said Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Rheem Chevy).
The defensive move by the lead car is usually to brake harder than the opponent and cut 'em off before the pass.
“You need to have eyes in the back of your head, know the guy behind you, his position, the kind of momentum he has on the run into Turn 11,” said Ambrose (No. 9 Stanley Ford). “If I think I'm in a position of weakness, that he's got momentum, I'll try to defend that position by moving to the inside. Then you have to be careful because he can do a switchback on the way out of the corner or run back of you and send you off of the track. ... The fastest way and easiest way for me to stay out of trouble is to be the guy on the attack.”
And if everyone approaches Turn 11 as if they're on the attack, the outcome is predictable: many cars fighting for a small patch of tarmac, all too frequently resulting in impact. Every driver knows the risks, but sometimes the opportunity to pick up ground is just too enticing. And if Turn 11 is a trouble spot when the race begins, you can bet it will be even more contentious when the white flag comes down on the final lap.
“It's not dangerous, but it's just a tough turn,” Wallace said. “And the reason it is, because it's the very last turn leading to the start/finish line. And you've gotta get something done in that turn if you're gonna win the race.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com.
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