By JEFF WOLFE
Any number of twists and turns can influence a driver’s ride to a NASCAR Sprint Cup victory.
Clint Bowyer maneuvered all 12 turns at Sonoma better than the rest of field for 112 laps Sunday, the first of two road course races on the 36-race schedule. It was Bowyer’s sixth career victory and first road course win, making it the sixth straight year that a first-time road course winner has taken the checkered flag at Sonoma. Bowyer did it in dominating fashion as there were just eight lead changes among five drivers. He led 71 laps in a race that went two extra laps with a green-white-checkered finish.
“To be in Victory Lane with this group is a dream come true,” said Bowyer, who is in his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing after coming over from Richard Childress Racing. “To switch teams, like I did, was a huge risk and a chance for me to showcase my talents.”
Bowyer’s chief challenger for the latter part of the race was the unsponsored No. 51 of Kurt Busch. The first of just two yellow flags came out on lap 82 when Tomy Drissi spun in Turn 8 and had a badly damaged car. On the restart on lap 87, Bowyer got the edge on Busch and never lost the lead. But several times between laps 95 and 100, Busch was on Bowyer’s bumper and even gave him a gentle tap in some of the turns, but it was not enough to move Bowyer out of the way.
“The final restart with 20-something to go, 25 to go, I was patient,” Busch said. “I was very patient with Bowyer. I got to his rear bumper, three, four times in turn 11 and bumped him. No Bonsai moves here. There’s a lot of respect that I was trying to give.”
The other yellow came on lap 108 on the 1.99-mile course. Kyle Busch came hard into Turn 7 and bumped Paul Menard, causing Menard to spin. Busch was able to keep going, but Menard was not, forcing the yellow flag to be waved.
With the restart on lap 111, Bowyer again got the advantage on Busch, and third-place Tony Stewart to pull away. Stewart eventually passed Busch to take second, who was driving a car with major suspension issues on the last few laps.
“I knew Kurt had a really had a good car early and I started to get away from him but I knew there was some guys out there that took tires and I looked in the mirror and the old grizzly himself, Tony, was one of them, and he was in third-place,” Bowyer said. “I knew it was going to be a tall order.”
But, it was an order that Bowyer, along with crew chief Brian Pattie, was able to fill. They each found themselves looking for new teams at the end of last season, so this trip to Victory Lane was a little more special to them both.
“It means a lot to me,” said Pattie, the former crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. “I was in the same boat he was. He lost his ride and I lost my job.”
“We are a place for refugees,” Bowyer said.
Bowyer’s place for much of the day was at the front of the pack. He took his first lead on lap 25 and led for eight laps then. He then led the final 38 laps.
“I knew what our strong points are, and it was a long run,” Bowyer said. “Obviously, not having cautions helped that and helped me stay up front.”
Even though he led just two laps in the race, Kurt Busch was strong as well, only to hit some permanent tires in the final laps which caused rear suspension issues.
“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 favor,” Busch said. “Our car was a little better on longer runs than Bowyer, but he did a great job. I just kept thinking, ‘He’s a dirt late model racer from the Midwest; there’s no way he’s going to be able to run the road course.’ And he did. He did great. That car and our car, I think we separated ourselves from the pack today.”
Busch was particularly emotional, knowing his team has significantly less funding than most of the others.
“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,” Busch said. “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. That’s why its Sprint Cup.”
Stewart, a seven-time NASACAR road course winner, nearly delivered too after gradually moving up through the pack throughout the day. He started 24th, but caught an important break on the first caution. While the first seven drivers did not pit, Stewart was the first driver to pit road where he got fresh tires and plenty of fuel to get to the end to help him to his second straight second-place finish.
“I was really pleased with it to be honest,” Stewart said of his finish. “The last two days, we have not been real happy with our balance and just couldn’t seem to get the speed that a lot of the guys that were putting up big numbers at the top of the board were able to run. We couldn’t even run within a second of them the last two days.”
Following the first three were Brian Vickers in fourth, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger and Joey Logano. Gordon led 13 laps early in the race, which gave him 23,000 career laps lead on the Sprint Cup circuit. The two cautions broke the mark for the least amount of cautions at Sonoma. There had been three cautions on four different occasions. That also allowed Bowyer to set a track record with an average speed of 83.624 in front of an estimated crowd of 91,000.
Next up for the Sprint Cup Series is the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. Race coverage is scheduled to start at 7:30pm EDT Saturday night on TNT.
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