25 June 2012
Bowyer sparkles in Sonoma wine country
Clint Bowyer had looked strong all through practice for Sunday afternoon's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, but his dominance of the race was still a surprise.
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.
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