Five things we learned at Sonoma
On a day when NASCAR Sprint Cup made its annual visit to California's Wine Country, the favorites are generally the road course specialists who have either already won on the non-ovals or advanced into NASCAR with a road racing background. Drivers such as Australia's Marcos Ambrose and Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya generally have their share of followers who assume they are the drivers to beat. Then there are drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart -- more of the classic NASCAR racer who proved to be adapt at making both left- and right-hand turns.
Generally, the drivers who came from the short tracks are overlooked.
Score one for Clint Bowyer of Emporia, Kan., a driver who competed on the short tracks of Kansas, Missouri and Iowa before he was able to get his big break with Richard Childress Racing, first in the Truck Series and later in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup. During his time at RCR, Bowyer was highly competitive with five race wins including Talladega in 2011. But after missing the Chase Bowyer was let go and by team owner Richard Childress so he moved over to Michael Waltrip Racing.
"We made this switch from RCR to MWR in the offseason and it was a big switch for me," Bowyer said. "I've always been at RCR since the beginning of my NASCAR career. It's a big step to be in Victory Lane this early with this group of guys."
Paired with crew chief Brian Pattie, Bowyer has had an outstanding season and capped it off with a victory in Sunday's Save Mart 350 -- Bowyer's sixth career Cup win and his first on a road course.
While that was a major storyline of a race that went green for the first 83 laps before the first caution flag, and ultimately ended with a green-white-checkered finish, there were plenty of interesting angles and storylines that came with the twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway.
After dominating Sunday, Bowyer was just as surprised as anyone to be in Victory Lane.
"Man, I grew up in Kansas racing on dirt tracks -- I do not belong in Victory Lane here," Bowyer said. "Finally, finally we are in Victory Lane. I'm not a road racer and I cannot believe we are in Victory Lane. I ran in traffic just to make the driver's meeting. It was a great race between me and Kurt Busch at the end of the race. I had a big lead and finally got away from Kurt and that last caution came out and Holy Cow -- I knew the pressure would be on. I knew it was going to be a handful. When I got around them and cleared them, I knew I had a good shot at it."
With the decisive victory, Bowyer moved from ninth to seventh in the Cup points. One year ago after this race, Bowyer was in the top-10 in the standings and appeared to be a solid bet to make the Chase before a series of crashes in the ensuing races at Daytona and Kentucky dropped him out of the top 10 and ultimately out of the Chase.
This year, those two races are flip-flopped with Kentucky next Saturday night and Daytona on July 7. But, so far, Bowyer shows no signs of a summer swoon.
In fact, he is not surprised with the sudden success.
"I'm not surprised, because I've seen all the hard work and the momentum that we've gained," Bowyer said. "But I'm very surprised we are in Victory Lane at Sonoma because I'm not a road racer. To switch teams like I did was a huge risk for me but a chance for me to showcase my talent. We are working together at MWR and at Toyota Research and Development. That is why we are doing so well."
Not only is Bowyer doing well on track, but so is teammate Martin Truex, Jr. He also led a portion of Sunday's race before having a late problem.
Bowyer may not be one of NASCAR's big names, but he is certainly a solid driver capable of making the Chase every year. His victory continues his upward momentum and solidifies his chances of being one of the 12 drivers that will fight it out over the final 10 races for the 2012 Sprint Cup championship.
Busch's Cup team owner, James Finch, even considered firing Busch after he was suspended for his actions at Dover.
So just when it appeared Busch could do nothing right, he nearly drove the unsponsored No. 51 Chevrolet to victory. He entered the race as the defending winner when he was at Penske Racing. Busch was up to second place and had one shot at taking the lead from Bowyer on the final restart after the race went into overtime but he couldn't pull off the move. Tony Stewart, who was on fresher tires, was able to wrest second away from Busch, who went on to finish third.
But after so much turmoil, Busch was emotional on pit road following the race.
"It's an amazing day when you can do what we did today," Busch said, choking back tears. "We were in position, B, I was running behind Bowyer who was running for his first win with a new team and C, the most important thing is I made a mistake when I got into the tires in Turn 11. They were bolted down this time and it bent the right front and bent the (suspension). I'm just glad we brought it home third.
"I was hoping I could be the 'Road Course, Ringer' and bring James Finch home a victory. I just made that one mistake."
It was the fifth Top 10 finish in 12 races at Sonoma for Busch, who also placed eighth in Saturday's Road America Nationwide race.
"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 it's Sprint Cup."
Once Busch realizes he can be his own worst enemy and make efforts to correct that behavior, he can once again become a legitimate contender.
"If I can get my head on straight here and after the race, then I'm able to race every weekend and go for victories," Busch said.
Now it's time to see if he can address his Demons.
"We had an unfortunate, fortunate break at the end on the second-to-last pit stop when they didn't get the can plugged in right so on that last caution we had a chance to come in for fuel and four tires and that got us up through there," Stewart said. "Our tires were 8-10 laps fresher than those other guys up front and that really helped us.
Stewart's drive was quite impressive but he certainly wasn't surprised to see Bowyer win.
"I don't think anybody had (thought of him as a road racer) in the past but all weekend he had had good speed," Stewart said. "So it didn't surprise me to see him up there leading the race, and I don't know how many laps he led but I think he led the majority.
"Not having all of those cautions made it fun because you could actually race guys one on one a lot today versus, you know, having to worry about getting those big packs and big groups and having to worry about whether you're going to get run over or not."
There are drivers the fans pay to see win races and then there are others who put on a show by their ability to drive through the field. Stewart fits both of those categories.
"We went about a half-of-a lap too far there on that one run," Gordon said after finishing sixth. "I think we made the car a little bit better, and just used a little bit more fuel in that second run, and ran out unfortunately. It never fails, you run out just as you pass pit entrance. We were lucky to get back to pit road, and get it fueled up. We had a really strong Chevrolet today. Luckily we had enough laps to slowly work our way up into the top-10; 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. It's still a great finish, and a great, great performance."
Gordon and his crew need to find a way to snap this streak of bad luck or he will not be in The Chase.
On Sunday, Montoya had issues in the race and finished way back in 34th place after qualifying 12th.
Drivers like Montoya are no longer favorites to win just because the Cup Series is at a road course. If that were the case, he would have more than one win and one top-five finish in six starts at Sonoma and one win and two top-five finishes in five starts at Watkins Glen.
Although Montoya has improved on the ovals, even with his vast background in Formula One and CART, there are drivers and teams that are better at Sonoma and Watkins Glen so he should no longer be considered a favorite at either of these tracks.
Drivers such as Gordon, Stewart and Johnson should be considered favorites until Montoya makes it back to Victory Lane at either of NASCAR's two road racing venues.