Saturday, February 24, 2018
Sports

Clint Bowyer surprises even himself with road-course victory at Sonoma

SONOMA, Calif. — Clint Bowyer says he knew he could get to Victory Lane this season, his first with Michael Waltrip Racing.

He just didn't think it would be on a road course.

Bowyer picked up his first win with his new team Sunday by holding off Kurt Busch on the winding 1.99-mile road course at Sonoma. Though Bowyer had finished fourth three times on this course, his background is on dirt tracks and this style of racing isn't his strong suit.

So the irony of winning Sunday wasn't lost on Bowyer.

"To have this dirt boy from Kansas at Victory Lane on a road course is big, trust me," he said. "I saw Jeff Gordon, he's sitting there on the wall, he's won this race many times, he's a champion of this sport and I just beat him. I passed Jeff Gordon, and you have no idea, a young racer from Kansas, you don't forget stuff like that."

Bowyer dominated, leading 71 of the 112 laps in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Defending winner Busch, in an unsponsored car, was all over the bumper of Bowyer's Toyota late and got a final shot at taking the win when caution flew with four laps left.

But Busch had damaged his car a few laps earlier and, during the yellow flag, he worried whether his Chevrolet was ruined for the two-lap overtime sprint to the end.

The two raced side-by-side on the restart, then Bowyer cleared Busch and pulled away.

"Kurt raced me clean, he bumped me and roughed me up, but never did anything to jeopardize either one of us," Bowyer said.

Bowyer, who left Richard Childress Racing at the end of last season to join MWR, had to walk to Victory Lane to celebrate with his new crew after his car ran out of gas.

"I'm super excited for everybody involved," Bowyer said. "To switch teams like I did was a huge risk and a chance for me, and it was a chance to showcase my talents.

"I've had good teammates and good stuff before, but never like this. This is a young group, Michael stuck it out and I'm telling you, he's fixing to reap the benefits. He's worked hard."

It was a strong day all-around for MWR, which got a fourth-place finish from Brian Vickers, who only has a handful of Sprint Cup races lined up and spent last weekend racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Martin Truex led 15 laps and ran in the top 10 until a late-race incident dropped him to 22nd.

Tony Stewart passed Busch on the final lap to claim second, but said it was because Busch's car was struggling.

"Every time he would go in the corner, the rear end would shift, and it was running him to the outside of the track on entry and it was screwing his corner up," Stewart said. "Kind of got it by default there to a certain degree. Once we got by there, we just were not close enough in that last lap to get to Clint."

Busch wound up third. He was emotional — having missed Pocono this month because he was suspended by NASCAR for verbally abusing a media member — and said he was thrilled to compete for the win in an underfunded, unsponsored Phoenix Racing car.

"It's an amazing day, when you can do what we did," Busch said. "I'm a little choked up because A: We were in position. B: I was very considerate to Bowyer, who was going for his first win with the new team. And then C: which is most important, I made a mistake, I got into those tires in Turn 11."

Busch, who has struggled with his temper on and off the track, saw a silver lining.

"If I can get my head on straight here, and after the race, then I could be able to race every weekend and go for victories," Busch said.

Pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose and Gordon, who owns a record nine road-course wins in Sprint Cup, were the favorites. But neither really contended.

Ambrose led the first 11 laps but fell back, and said the setup on his Ford was off. He finished eighth. Gordon led once for 13 laps before running out of gas as he was headed for a pit stop. He wound up sixth.

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