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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.




Related Pictures

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Regan Smith (far left) make contact after a multicar melee on the final restart during the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (Photo Credit: By Robert Laberge, Getty Images for NASCAR)
Clint Bowyer crosses the finish line first to win the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (Photo Credit: By Todd Warshaw, Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Beer Chevrolet, Brian Vickers, driver of the #14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 McDonald`s Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on February 13, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on February 13, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Taxslayer.com Chevrolet, signs autographs for fans during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on February 12, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 DOW Chevrolet, Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour Energy Chevrolet, Brian Vickers, driver of the #14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet, and Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 Nature`s Bakery Chevrolet, practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on February 12, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brian Scott. (Picture Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, holds his daughter, Lydia Sunday, November 22, 2015 before final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Johnson and other Jeff Gordon teammates at Hendrick Motorsports wore tribute hats to honor the retiring Chevy driver prior to the start of the race. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, races to a sixth place finish Sunday, November 22, 2015 in the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Gordon finishes third in the Chase for the Cup Championship. This was Gordon`s last race as a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver. He has made 796 consecutive Cup Series starts, earned 93 wins, and 81 poles - all behind the wheel of Chevrolets. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Defending Sprint Cup Champion Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, races to a second place finish, Sunday, November 22, 2015 in the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Harvick finishes as the runner-up in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Defending Sprint Cup Champion Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, races to a second place finish, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS finishes in sixth place, and Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision finishes in twelfth place Sunday, November 22, 2015 in the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. This Chevrolet drivers finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th (respectively) in the Chase of the Cup Championship. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Series championship contenders Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, take part in pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Former racing driver Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, and Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton pose during pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, celebrates winning the series championship and the race with a burnout after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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