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Bowyer sparkles in Sonoma wine country

25 June 2012

Looking at the line up for this week's Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Sonoma, California, one might have picked out the 'usual suspects' who have either shone on one of the series' rare road course outings in the past - people like champions Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon, or last year's race winner Kurt Busch - or else one of the many road specialists that the Cup teams have on the books for times just like this, such as regulars Marcos Ambrose and Juan Montoya as well as Brian Vickers freshly returned from 24 hours at Le Mans the previous week, or else specially recruited 'ringers' like Boris Said and Tomy Drissi.

Many of those drivers did indeed feature strongly on Sunday afternoon, but no one really saw the threat of Michael Waltrip Racing - and Clint Bowyer in particular - becoming as dominant as it turned out to be as the race wore on.

Ambrose had won pole position on Friday, his second consecutive Cup pole and once again with a track record time. He looked set to command the race and duly took up the lead as the green flag waved, but the team were worried even before the race got underway about just how the #9 car would perform during long stints, since they hadn't had the opportunity the'd hoped for to try some distance runs in practice.

It turned out that their anxiety was well placed, and after initially pulling out several car lengths over Jeff Gordon in second place, Ambrose's car started to fade. Gordon closed right up and applied some psychological pressure, and finally Ambrose locked up his brakes into turn 7 which was just the chance Gordon needed to pounce and take the lead on lap 12. Now deprived of the clear air in front, Ambrose's form continued to fade fast and he would spent much of the rest of the afternoon fighting to stay in the top ten.

"We really missed it," admitted Ambrose afterwards. "We missed it bad and we did good to recover and get a top ten out of it. We will take it and move on. We got the pole and had a lot of speed; we just missed it for the race. We were slow. It was just terrible. We had no speed in the car and we paid the price."

That made Gordon the man to beat. Given his track record at Sonoma, no one was surprised by that: he'd topped all the pre-race track sessions with the sole exception of qualifying which he'd missed by one to Ambrose, but now that minor oversight had been corrected and there seemed little to keep him away from a sixth victory in the Californian wine country.

But cue the "Jaws" theme music: Gordon was being stalked by Clint Bowyer, who had started in sixth place after a good showing for Michael Waltrip Racing in qualifying for their two regular drivers. By lap 19 Bowyer had successfully navigated his way forward and just dispatched Jimmie Johnson for second place, and now had his sights on the lead. But Gordon had drawn out a big lead and had a strong car - surely it would take a while for Bowyer to position himself for any realistic attempt?

Actually, it took just seven. On lap 26 he'd eliminated Gordon's margin, and at turn 11 he made his move and glided past Gordon for the top spot. Gordon had no response, and indeed was struggling for handling late in this opening stint: Johnson took second away from him a couple of laps later and next time around it was Kurt Busch going past him for third. Gordon had Busch deja vu two laps later when Kyle did likewise. He would pick up again in his next stint, but then pushed the fuel too far because of a missed radio communication and ran dry, which cost him an eternity crawling back to the pits on lap 73 and meant the race win was out of the question, although his car was still strong enough to race back to the top six by the end.

"We went about a half-of-a lap too far there on that one run," he said of the mid-race stint. "I think we made the car a little bit better, and just used a little bit more fuel in that second run, and ran out unfortunately. It never fails, you run out just as you pass pit entrance.

"Luckily we had enough laps to slowly work our way up into the top ten," he continued. "I guess we ended up sixth. I thought I had a shot at getting a top five and then someone laid someone laid oil going into four. We didn't know, so a little frustrating there. Still a great finish, and a great, great performance."

So with Ambrose and Gordon out of the picture, and the race lead in his grasp, things were suddenly looking very good for Clint Bowyer. He was going for essentially a two-stop fuel strategy, but MWR were splitting their strategy and putting team mate Martin Truex Jr. on a three-stopper, meaning that he came in early in the race for his first stop (after 23 laps, compared with lap 35 for Bowyer) and hoped to use clear track position and new tyres to compensate for the additional time on pit road. One lucky caution and it could vault him into a position to win the race; but if there were cautions, then Bowyer had the straight run strategy to cover the lead for the team.

And the luck was with Bowyer on Sunday: strangely, there was an absence of cautions all the way through to lap 82, by which time the pit strategies had largely played out and everyone was back on an even footing. Bowyer had led for much of that time, with only Kurt Busch and Truex Jr. getting to the front during the pit stop cycles. Busch had put in one of the longest first stints of all, and then used the middle of the race to calmly - yes, calmly - work his way up through the remaining cars that sat between him and Bowyer, including besting Jimmie Johnson with a nice strong-arm move through turn 11 on lap 58 shortly after the midpoint of the race.

But the thing that was really confounding everyone - teams, drivers, pundits and fans alike - was the lack of cautions. There had been a few spins during the afternoon - Ryan Newman went off-track on lap 19, and Travis Kvapil went dirt tracking on lap 69 - but both drivers recovered from their excursions and were able to carry on without sparking a caution. Considering that recent history has revealed road course racing to bring out some of the most blatant on-track racing aggression of the Cup season, it was all being a remarkably well-mannered, gentlemanly and indeed gentle Sunday afternoon drive.

It couldn't last, and finally it was Tomy Drissi who triggered the first caution of the day when he crashed in turn 8 on lap 82. That wiped out Bowyer's previous 2.7s lead over Kurt Busch and closed up the field; Bowyer, Busch and Johnson all stayed out, while others including Vickers, Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards were among those to use the opportunity to pit for fresh tyres to make the remaining 28 laps more interesting.

Bowyer retained the lead at the restart, but soon realised he had a big problem: the bright red #51 Phoenix Racing car (conspicuously lacking big- ticket sponsorship livery this weekend) was all over the back of him, Kurt Busch doing everything possible to unsettle the #15. He pushed, he wiped is front bumper all over the back of Bowyer's car, but still nothing could elicit the slip from the race leader that might give Busch the chance he so desperately needed and wanted in order to claim the win.

"Without a doubt, I thought I could have pressured Bowyer into a mistake," Kurt Busch said. "He was there for the taking."

After about ten laps of this, it was clear that Busch's tyres had paid the price for all this hard racing and he was starting to fall back. Worse, the #51 then clipped a stack of tyres on lap 102 which instead of being free-standing as they had been in the past were now bolted down, and delivered a shock to the car that did real damage.

"I just made a little mistake there in turn 11," Busch said later. "Those tyres have never been bolted down - ever - and I clipped a set of tyres and it broke the front suspension and the rear panel bar and I couldn't compete for the win after that, so a mistake there," he said. " I'm a bit choked up.

"I couldn't do it when my panhard bar broke. The rear end was too unstable under braking," Busch admitted. "I just look back at that one moment, and it's just tough."

Busch no longer had any hope of staying with Bowyer who was already pulling out a one second lead; instead, it became a question of whether he could continue to protect second place. Jimmie Johnson didn't look to have the pace to challenge him, but that picture changed on lap 102 when Tony Stewart used his new tyres to pass the #48 on the starting straight. Stewart was just the sort of driver Busch didn't need to have approaching him fast from the rear: tough, motivated, and currently very fast indeed. The only question was whether he had enough time left to make his move before the chequered flag.

A second caution was to factor into the outcome: on lap 106, Kyle Busch got unstable under braking and tyre-hopped his way into the back of Paul Menard's car at turn 7, spinning them both to bring out the yellow flags. That meant a double-file green-white-chequered (GWC) restart on lap 111, and at Sonoma it's always the restarts that are the most 'interesting' and eventful moments.

When it came to the lead, Bowyer was determined to make the restart as dull as he could be driving away from the field before anyone had a chance to attack him or catch him up in an accident. Kurt Busch had his hands full with Tony Stewart but managed to pull in front in second place in the first corner; further back there had been a messy compression that had seen multiple cars tap and bump each other into spins off onto the dirt, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. restarting in 13th the most high profile casualty as he was slammed into by the unsighted cars following him up to the top of the hill.

"We were all restarting there and we went through turn 3 and we came over 3A and I just got hit in the back and spun around," he said. "I'm sure there's a bunch of people running into each other there to have made that happen. I don't think it was anything intentional; it was just the way green-white-chequers are here. We see it every year. We see it every year."

Regan Smith was another driver left with a torn-up race car as a result. "There was a cluster of cars spinning in front of me and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said, adding that it had been a frustrating end to a frustrating weekend.

"The car was loose and and it lacked grip, which made it difficult to manoeuvre around this demanding road course," he revealed. "Though things weren't going our way, we fought hard and I hated to lose those five positions at the end."

Despite that multi-car incident, everyone was able to limp away and that meant a new caution wasn't needed - the race would finish under this first GWC attempt after all. There was no doubt that Bowyer now had the win, the only question now was who would take second.

Stewart had sized up the damage to Busch's car and knew he had a chance to outbrake the #51 on the final lap; there was nothing that Busch could do but watch the #14 dive past.

"He had something break in the rear end which made it really difficult for him," said Stewart. "Every time he would go in the corner, the rear end would shift, and it was running him to the outside of the track on entry and it was screwing his corner up. So you know, kind of got it by default there to a certain degree. Once we got by there, we just were not close enough in that last lap to get to Clint."

After the race, Stewart was unexpectedly praising of Busch's efforts to hold onto second in those final laps: "I was watching him, and it was honestly, I don't know how he kept it on the racetrack with how much the rear end was moving around on that car. I thought he did a really phenomenal job of just hanging on to what he had."

For Busch it had clearly been an emotional race, as he sought to defend his 2011 race win at Sonoma but at a new team on a fraction of the budget of the Penske operation with whom he had made it to pit lane last time around.

"To have a nice, steady pace, and to have a smooth pit strategy for my Phoenix Racing guys, I thought I could deliver for them. We were in contention. We made it all the way to the final restart, and today with all of those long green flag runs, I thought the race would play into our favour," said Busch.

"When you show up and you're on a third of the budget and you almost bring it to victory lane, you can't say that one guy does it out here," he added. "It takes a full team effort. But I really want to deliver for my guys today, and being that close, and make one mistake, it's a tough game."

Busch was also complimentary of Bowyer's show of form at Sonoma. "Our car was a little better on longer runs than Bowyer, but he did a great job," he said. "I just kept thinking, 'He's a dirt late model racer from the Midwest, there's no way he can be able to run the road course!' But he did."

Busch was lucky that there were only a few corners to go, because a little further back Brian Vickers was also on a flier on his new tyres, easily dispatching Jimmie Johnson for fourth: if there had been a couple more laps then the on-form Vickers fresh from piloting Michael Waltrip's Le Mans Ferrari entry the previous weekend would surely have found a way past too.

That was quite a comeback for Vickers, in only his third Cup start of the year subbing for Mark Martin in the #55 after the veteran racer opted for a part-time season in 2012. Vickers had incurred a pit lane speeding penalty during the first round of pit stops and looked to have written himself out of contention, only to drive all the way back into the top four by the time the chequered flag.

"It took me a few laps to get used to it," said Vickers of his return to the cockpit of a Cup stock car. "It's been a while since I've driven a big, heavy car. I've been racing sports cars. Clearly, I'm still missing that pit limiter because I got caught speeding on pit road. I didn't see the lights. Clearly I blew through them. That really hurt us a lot. We drove all the way up to eighth and had to start back over again."

But he had managed to pull it off - no wonder that whispers of Waltrip looking at the feasibility of adding a full-time fourth car for Vickers started to gain traction in the post-race paddock.

The third MWR entry, driven on a three-stop strategy by Truex Jr., also looked set to gain a top six finish only to spin out on the final lap as a result of contact from Joey Logano, who had already previously turned his own Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin at the hairpin. Truex instead finished in 22nd place by the time he recovered the car, and afterwards marched over to Logano for a discussion about what had transpired.

"I just started getting out of control and was wheel-hopping a little bit and when you start wheel-hopping these things, it's really hard to get them back under control," said Logano in his own defence. "You have to do what you have to do to keep people behind you ... You have to be the aggressor unless you're going to get dumped."

Despite being a road course specialist, Juan Montoya wasn't able to feature in the race as a result of escalating technical gremlins with the #42 that included losing the tachometer showing him his speed for the pit lane, leaving him having to judge his speed by pacing other cars. Fuel alarms and a loss of battery power would leave him five laps off the lead in 34th; his Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing team mate Jamie McMurray got spun at the first restart on lap 88 but still finished in 19th place.

Montoya's still hoping that the personnel changes the team instigated last summer will trigger a revival for his Cup fortunes. Ironically, one of those changes was to oust Montoya's crew chief Brian Pattie, who went on to find a new job at Michael Waltrip Racing. Specifically, he was in victory lane at Sonoma as Clint Bowyer's crew chief.

"We are a place for refugees," chuckled Bowyer, referring both to Pattie's situation and his own after the shock of contract renegotiations at his old team breaking down and leaving him with an uncertain future in NASCAR.

“Basically I kind of lost my ride at RCR, walked into a new program with a lot of unknowns," said Bowyer. "It was very nerve-racking times in the winter time!" But it had paid off, with victory for Bowyer and MWR already in just their 16th outing together.

"I'm proud of everybody at MWR for making this happen. What a wonderful opportunity at this stage in my career to make this jump and make it work," said Bowyer, drinking up the success under the Californian sunshine. "I'm super excited for everybody involved to be in Victory Lane with this group so early in the season. It's a dream come true."

In a very close battle to make it into the Chase post-season battle for the Sprint Cup, the win is hugely significant and bumps Bowyer up two spots to seventh place: the top ten make the Chase, together with the next two drivers with the most wins from positions 11 to 20, making Bowyer's visit to victory lane at Sonoma doubly significant.

Matt Kenseth continues to lead the points despite finishing outside the top ten, with Greg Biffle bouncing back up to second place 11pts back as a result of Dale Earnhardt's late-race crash.

Full race results and Saturday practice times available, as well as full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship points standings.


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