Joe Jennings, NASCAR Correspondent
Clint Bowyer survived late-race challenges to capture the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma on Sunday afternoon. Leading 71 of the 112 laps, including two over-time laps, around the 1.99-mile road course, Bowyer dominated much of the race, pulling out to convincing leads only to have his lead evaporate with three laps to go when an accident triggered the second and final caution flag.
Undaunted, Bowyer once again powered his way to the front and survived challenges first from Kurt Busch and then from Tony Stewart to win the first of two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races on road courses.
To have this dirt boy in victory lane at this road course is big.
Winning for the sixth-time in his Sprint Cup career, Bowyer was the class of the field throughout, and no one was surprised with the outcome. The winner drove the 5-Hour Energy Toyota fielded by Michael Waltrip Racing. For the team, it records its third Cup victory and first since Chicagoland Speedway in 2010.
In winning, Bowyer became the sixth consecutive first-time Sprint Cup victor at Sonoma and the eighth consecutive different winner in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. “Quietly, this has been one of my favorite tracks,” said Bowyer. “I have always been comfortable here, but I’ve never had a car like this.” Previously at Sonoma, he had finished fourth three times.
“It is unbelievable to get with a new bunch of people and win races,” Bowyer said. “You have to be with good people and that’s what it takes to be successful. Everyone is working very well together. I’ve had good teammates before but I’ve never had anything of this magnitude. To have this dirt boy in victory lane at this road course is big.”
Said crew chief Brian Pattie, “This victory means a lot to us. Clint lost his ride and I lost my job a year ago. I am blessed to be here. Our pace was good and we weren’t going to let this one get away from us.”
Michael Waltrip said, “This place just reminds me on how mightily Michael Waltrip Racing struggled when we started back in 2007. We put Terry Labonte in my car just so we could be sure of making the race, and that was just five short years ago. At the time, we were wondering what our future was like and how we were going to survive. We probably appreciate this more than anybody ever could, because we know how close we were to just not being around any more -- just six months after our start. So to stand up there be able to cheer with Brian Pattie (crew chief) and the team and to see Clint (Bowyer) take the checkered flag after all we have been through, it's just really special. I am proud that Clint drove one of our cars to victory lane. It is a big deal for our team."
Regarding the late-race caution and the restart, Bowyer added, “I knew Kurt (Busch) had a good car early, but I knew there were guys that had taken on tires. And then I looked in the mirror and saw that grizzly (Tony Stewart) in the mirror, so I knew I would have a tall order (to hang on), but I had learned some things on the first restart that were going to help me. The track had gotten very slick, so I backed off a bit. When we got to turn 4, the No. 78 (Regan Smith) was parked there, and there were parts everywhere. Everything goes through your mind on a green-white-checker. You know you are close on fuel, you know you have to keep two champions behind you and you know you have no business leading this thing. It was unbelievable the way it worked out.
“Kurt (Busch) raced me clean, even though he bumped me and roughed me, but never did anything to jeopardize either one of us.”
The popular driver said he knew from a test at Virginia International Raceway he had a great car, but didn’t realize he could take it to Victory Lane.
Second was Tony Stewart, who gained two positions in the final laps after starting far back in 24th place. The Sprint Cup champion drove the Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, and he trailed the winner by .8 seconds at the checkered flag.
“We started too far back, but I think myself and Brian Vickers probably had two of the best cars,” Stewart stated. “Obviously the No. 51 (Kurt Busch) and the No. 15 (Clint Bowyer) were really strong all day too. Glad we got those cautions at the end that got us bunched up and that got us some spots.
“At the end, we planned on letting everything get settled down for a couple of laps and we had an unfortunate-fortunate break at the end. On the second to last pit stop, something happened with the fueling and we didn’t get it full, so that second to last caution there we got a chance to come in for fuel and four tires and that got us up there. We just had eight or 10 laps fresher tires than those guys. We still had to fight our way through there. We had a really good car; we just took all day to get the track position.”
Stewart realized that something had gone wrong with Busch’s car and he commended him for keeping the car on the track. “He was driving the wheels off that thing, but I don’t know how he kept it on the race track. He did a really good job of keeping that thing going.”
Kurt Busch took third in the unsponsored Phoenix Construction Services Chevrolet owned by James Finch. The controversial driver was very emotionally and physically worn-out at race end.
“It’s an amazing day when you can do what we did today,” he said, barely managing to speak. “I’m a little choked up because A) we were in position, B) I was very considerate to (Clint) Bowyer, who was going for his first win with the new team. And then C), which was most important, I made a mistake. I got into those tires in turn 11 and for years they have never been bolted down. They were bolted down this time. It bent the right front up and it broke the pan-hard bar and I’m just glad we brought it home third. If I had been smarter, I would have let Tony Stewart go a lap, a half-a-lap ahead.”
Part-time Sprint Cup driver Brian Vickers took fourth in another MWR Toyota.
Jimmie Johnson gained fifth place in the Lowe’s Chevrolet.
Rounding out the top-10 finishers was early leader Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, fast-qualifier Marcos Ambrose, A. J. Allmendinger and Joey Logano.
Only two caution flags, the fewest ever at Sonoma, slowed the race.
In the Sprint Cup point tally, Matt Kenseth continues to lead the standings 11 ahead of Biffle and 14 over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ended up 19th after being wrecked on the final lap.
Johnson, Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski rank fourth to 10th in points.