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Bowyer sparkles in Sonoma wine country

"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.




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)
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Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, celebrates his win Sunday, July 27, 2014 of the Brickyard 400 Nascar Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gordon, who leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings, has won at the Brickyard a record 5 times, the first one in 1994. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
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Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, races the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images)
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