Clint Bowyer’s victory in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma was a surprise to the driver who chased him for more than 20 laps — Kurt Busch — but in retrospect, history may have been on Bowyer’s side.
“I just kept thinking, ‘He’s a dirt Late Model racer from the Midwest — there’s no way he can be able to run the road course,’ but he did,” said Busch, who finished third despite hitting a tire barrier in Turn 11 at the 1.99-mile track and breaking the panhard bar on his No. 51 Chevrolet.
With Busch’s car damaged and vulnerable to a pass during a green-white-checkered-flag finish that took the event two laps beyond its scheduled 110 laps, Bowyer held off charging Tony Stewart to claim his first victory of the season and the sixth of his career.
Stewart passed Kurt Busch for the second position after the final restart and finished .829 seconds behind Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota. Busch held the third spot, followed by Brian Vickers — doing spot duty in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota — and Jimmie Johnson.
Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger and Joey Logano completed the top 10 in a race that began with a record green-flag run of 82 laps and featured a record-low two cautions.
After a look at Bowyer’s record at Sonoma, the road-course victory seems much less surprising than Busch might have thought at first blush. In six previous starts, the dirt-tracker from the Midwest had finished fourth three times and eighth once.
“He’s shown consistency, so it was a matter of time before he would get one,” said Stewart, who caught a break when the caution flag waved for the first time on Lap 82. Stewart’s crew hadn’t filled the fuel cell in the No. 14 Chevrolet, and the caution gave him a chance to pit for fuel and tires.
Bowyer did a majestic job of driving in the closing laps to hold off Busch, who harried him lap after lap until Busch hit the tires on Lap 102. Bowyer pulled away to a lead of more than one second before Kyle Busch and Paul Menard spun in Turn 7 to cause the second caution.
“Without a doubt I thought I could have pressured Bowyer into a mistake,” Busch said. “He was there for the taking . . . and I couldn’t do it when my panhard bar broke. The rear end was too unstable under braking. So I just look back at that one moment, and it’s just tough — but solid top three.”
Even though the contact with the tires took Busch out of contention for the win, his handling of the wounded car impressed Stewart.
“I was watching him, and it was — honestly — I don’t know how he kept it on the race track with how much the rear end was moving around on that car,” Stewart said. “I thought he did a really phenomenal job of just hanging on to what he had.”
Busch’s handling of defeat impressed Bowyer, especially after Busch came to Victory Lane to congratulate the race winner. The actions of the 2004 champion on Sunday were a far cry from the blow-ups that had resulted in probation and ultimately suspension for the embattled driver earlier this year.
“For him to come to Victory Lane spoke volumes about his character,” Bowyer said. “He’s a champion of the sport — you can’t lose sight of that. I know there have been a lot of negatives around him, but there were a hell of a lot of positives today for Kurt Busch.
“He had an extremely good run . . . That boy can drive, and when you give him the confidence and the direction and, sometimes, I guess, the discipline to get the job done, he’s certainly capable of it. He had me on my toes. He had me scared to death today, and things worked out.
“When you can beat that guy . . . you know, the two guys behind me were champions of this sport, and that’s big, to be able to hold them guys off.”
Notes: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the victim of a last-lap crash and finished 23rd, dropping to third in the series standings, 14 points behind Matt Kenseth, who ran 13th . . . Greg Biffle took over second in the standings with a seventh-place result. He’s 11 points behind his Roush Fenway Racing teammate . . . Bowyer was the sixth straight driver in six years to score his first road course win at Sonoma and the eighth straight different winner at the 1.99-mile road course.