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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)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Quicken Loans Chevrolet SS, races to an eighth place finish with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS who finished in second place Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet SS, stops in his pit on his way to a fifth place finish Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. Elliott takes over the #24 car from retired driver Jeff Gordon.  (Photo by Ashley R Dickerson for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, races to a fourth place finish Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finishes in second place Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Brian Cleary for Chevy Racing)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 as Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage (L) and John Godwin of Duck Commander (R) look on at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 7, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, celebrates with the chequered flag after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, leads Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Brian Vickers, driver of the #14 Janssen Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation Chevrolet SS, finishes in seventh place, Sunday April 3, 2016, in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, VA (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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