Bowyer beats traffic, ends Waltrip’s skid
SONOMA, Calif. – As he cruised out front with only a few laps to go, Clint Bowyer felt the pressure. He wasn’t supposed to be there.
“You know you’re close on fuel, you’ve got two champions behind you, and you know you have no business leading,” Bowyer said. “But we had a really good car.”
Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota proved just good enough to hold off a late surge by Tony Stewart and bumps from Kurt Busch to win Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350. It was Bowyer’s first victory for Michael Waltrip Racing, a perpetual underdog that had been winless since 2010.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking,” Bowyer said. “The two guys behind me are champions of this sport. To hold them off meant a lot to me today. … To have this dirt boy from Kansas in Victory Lane at this road course is big, trust me.”
Conditions were perfect for Sunday’s race with a light breeze and temperatures hovering near 70 degrees. More than 91,000 fans jammed the track and Highway 37.
On his way to the race, traffic nearly caused Bowyer to miss the drivers’ meeting.
“That speaks volumes about getting things turned around in this sport,” Bowyer said. “That’s a good problem to have.”
Stewart and Busch had their opportunities. A late caution brought out a green-white-checkered finish, two extra laps and a mad dash for victory.
“I sucked so much air, my car stalled,” Bowyer joked.
Stewart, who started 24th, said afterward he needed only one more lap to catch Bowyer.
“I’m damn glad he didn’t have it,” Bowyer said. “He was going to beat me.”
Bowyer, 33, became the sixth consecutive first-time road race winner at the Sonoma raceway and the eighth straight different driver to capture this Cup race.
“This has been one of the most exciting races we go to,” Bowyer said. “A track like this can really shake things up.”
Bowyer joined Waltrip’s team this season after he could not reach a contract agreement with Richard Childress Racing. Sunday’s win was the sixth of his Cup career.
Crew chief Brian Pattie also was looking for work when he joined Bowyer at Waltrip Racing.
“This means a lot to me,” Pattie said. “I was in the same boat he was; he lost his ride, and I lost my job.”
Sunday, Pattie kept Bowyer calm, chirping over the radio to save gas and conserve his tires.
In a race often determined by fuel strategy, Bowyer made only two pit stops while leading 71 laps. His Camry ran out of fuel while he turned celebratory doughnuts near the finish line.
“Brian did an amazing job,” said Waltrip, who fought back emotions after the breakthrough win. “Race car drivers, I’m one of them. I know how frustrating and crazy it is. He kept Clint so focused. … That’s what a team is all about, having guys that believe in each other.”
Stewart gave Bowyer credit. “Honestly, when you have an opportunity like that, you can force yourself into mistakes,” he said. “Clint did a good job because he didn’t make any.”
Usually spiked with plenty of cautions on Sonoma’s road course, this 112-lap race stayed under green flag until Lap 83, a record. The former mark was 42 laps in 1997.
Stewart made the most of the opportunity to weave his way into contention.
“Not having all those cautions actually made it fun,” he said.
But that caution allowed the pack to catch up with Bowyer, who was cruising comfortably ahead of 2011 winner Busch and 2010 winner Jimmie Johnson. The double-file restart set up a dogfight for the remaining laps.
In his No. 51 Chevrolet, Busch tapped Bowyer’s back bumper at least three times.
“Kurt raced me clean,” Bowyer said. “He bumped me and roughed me up, but never did anything to jeopardize either one of us.”
Said Busch, “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.”
Another caution on Lap 106 — only the second of the 223-mile race — set up a frantic finish. It was the fewest cautions in this Cup event’s 24-year history.
After the final restart, Busch bumped the tire wall on Turn 11, breaking his front suspension. Stewart gained second but couldn’t quite catch Bowyer, who won by 0.829 seconds.
Holding his winner’s goblet filled with Sonoma cabernet, Bowyer was ready to celebrate.
“I’m fixing to drink some wine,” he said. “You’re always in a rush to get out of here. But I don’t care when I leave.”