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When they asked me what I remember of the 25 years NASCAR has visited Sonoma, among all the memories one stands out. One always has stood out. Always will.

I was sitting in Dale Earnhardt's hauler, way back in the dining area, cushy sofas, table, all the luxuries, insulated from track noise, when I decided to tug on Superman's cape.

It was 1995, two days before the NASCAR race at then-Sears Point Raceway, and I was granted an interview with Earnhardt. "Granted" is the right word for it because Earnhardt then was at the height of his fame, his powers, his aura. I got an interview with The Intimidator, so I was half-expecting Earnhardt to be sitting there with a baseball bat, casually whacking his palm with it, just to remind me who he was.

Twenty minutes into it, and there was no baseball bat, I paused to take a breath. Earnhardt had been polite, affable, open, warm — yes, warm. He was generous in describing his feelings: "If I get angry at someone, I'm going to get my hands on him .<TH>.<TH>. I am a moody person, an independent person by nature ... you learn money damn sure don't buy you happiness."

It was then I decided to tug on Superman's cape.

"I am surprised I am saying this," I said, "but, you know, I don't think you are an (expletive) like your reputation makes you out to be."

I sat back on my chair, uncomfortable. In my business, it's not a good idea to call someone an expletive deleted, especially someone who is supposed to be as mean as a viper. Earnhardt remained silent for five seconds. It was the longest five seconds of my life. I kept thinking my instincts failed me this time. What an idiot.

Earnhardt leaned forward, I leaned back, and then the man broke out into a huge grin. He gave a self-deprecating shrug, like what-are-you-gonna-do, as if he just let me in on a little secret. We talked for another 10 minutes. I shook his hand on the way out. Professional athletes are good at hiding themselves, but this time I was sure I saw the real Dale Earnhardt and not a promotional construct.

I also was sure on another Friday before another NASCAR race that I got to see the real Tony Stewart. Ol' Smoke was taking a few media types on a tour of the serpentine track. Six people were in the van. You brake here ... you downshift there ... you carry speed into this corner ... then Ol' Smoke decided to lift the left side of the van off the course. He took a left turn hard, the occupants collapsed to the right and the left side of the van rose up, the tires off the ground and, I thought, I'm gonna die in a vehicle that usually carries mattresses.

"Heh, heh, heh," I could hear Stewart say to no one in particular.

Memories are selective objects. You pick what impresses and endures. At Sears Point/Infineon/Sonoma/TBA Raceway, some might remember particular races. Myself? I remember particular drivers and their personalities because that's how I'm wired. Personalities drive a sport and NASCAR specializes in personalities. The sport grew because of them.

It was the imaginative Boris Said who told me once, "We (racers) are 43 pit bulls with hand grenades in our mouths."

I may have not heard a better description of the aggression behind those steering wheels.

It was Marcos Ambrose who laid out perfectly the tension from never being able to relax on the 12-turn road course: "I've had cramps so bad that I couldn't remove my hand from the gear shift after the race."

I can only imagine what Marcos' eyeballs looked like.

It was Jeff Gordon who told me what it felt like to be on a winless streak in NASCAR.

"I want to see some beer cans thrown at me," Gordon said. "It's been a while."

I liked surprising O. Bruton Smith, owner of the track. Bruton is that rooster who never misses a sunrise and, for that matter, anything else that comes after that.

"There's sheep grazing at Infineon, acting like organic lawn mowers," I said.

"What sheep?" Smith said. He didn't know.

It was driver Martin Truex Jr. who told me that playing lifelike racing video games helped him become a better driver.

"Look, they teach people how to fly in flight simulators," Truex said. "Why wouldn't you damn well do it on the track? I have a steering wheel hooked up to it (video game). I have a brake pedal, a gas pedal and a clutch."

It was Ricky Craven who spoke of suspense in a way I never heard before. He was asked what it was like going into the air over seven cars at Talladega, which ended luckily with just two broken ribs and a broken wrist.

"Actually, the silence doesn't bother me," Craven said. "It's what happens after the silence that bothers me. And it bothers my family, too."

It was Kyle Busch who provided a classic example of spin-doctoring. Two weeks before NASCAR's race in 2009, Busch broke a $30,000 hand-made Gibson guitar in celebration of winning a Nationwide race in Nashville. It was shattered in large chunks, not in little pieces.

"It proved Gibson makes a good guitar," Busch said.

It was NASCAR president Mike Helton who showed me how the sport never rushes into anything, especially when it concerns irritating its Southern heritage.

Before the 2000 race, I asked Helton if he could see Japanese car manufacturers racing in NASCAR, especially if those car companies would have American racing teams and shops, guaranteeing the required millions of dollars to compete.

"We'd still have to see," Helton said.

Welcome, folks, to this weekend's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Sonoma Raceway is now part of NASCAR history. While no driver here has flown over seven cars and while no one can go three-wide into a turn like they can do at Talladega, the legends and the legendary moments of the sport are always there to be remind us NASCAR is no pillow fight.

Even though the sport has become a little too corporate and a little too button-down over the past 10 years, the edge is always there, at every track.

For all intents and purposes, NASCAR entered the national sports conversation on Feb. 18, 1979, with the edgiest moment in its history. Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough got into a televised fistfight at the conclusion of the Daytona 500.

"That's when poor ol' Cale," Allison said before the 2011 Sonoma race, "kept beating his nose on my fist."

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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