By Keri Luiz and Donna Beth Weilenman
|Photo by Donna Beth Weilenman|
A late-race, multiple-car crash in the Toyota-Save Mart 350 meant Clint Bowyer’s short lead over past winners Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch had vanished. Bowyer would later say he was feeling pressure from the two aggressive drivers in Sunday’s race at the raceway in Sonoma.
But Bowyer would defend his top spot long enough to take the checkered flag, his first win on the road course.
“You know, the two guys behind me were champions of this sport, and that’s big, to be able to hold them guys off,” Bowyer said after the race.
It wasn’t the only racing Bowyer did Sunday. Stuck in traffic for two hours on California Highway 37 — clogged as thousands of fans headed toward the track — Bowyer had to abandon his ride and sprint on foot to make it in time for the pre-race driver’s meeting. If he hadn’t made it to the meeting in time, he would have been penalized, and would have had to start the race at the back of the field.
Vallejo native Jeff Gordon, who started second and was a contender during much of the race, suffered from a fuel miscalculation and had to slow his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet in order to make it to his pit box.
|Photo by Keri Luiz|
“We went a half a lap too far,” Gordon said afterward. He said he was lucky the incident happened when he still had enough time to get a top-10 finish. He barely remained on the lead lap, but powered forward through the pack to finish sixth, one spot behind his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, of El Cajon.
While other drivers praised Bowyer for not making any mistakes during the race, he had one calamity afterward. After wanting to share his victory celebration with his crew, Bowyer broke the large wine goblet that is the Sonoma track’s trophy. Fortunately, the track had a back-up.
Bowyer was an ebullient winner, praising Toyota for “sponsoring my new favorite race track,” and later laughed as he said, “I thought it was the best race that I’ve literally ever seen — best race in NASCAR history. I promise! That’s exactly how I feel!”
Bowyer's team had dedicated their effort to Brady Bakken, an 11-year-old North Carolina boy who is the son of a 5-Hour Energy Drink sales broker. The boy is battling lymphoma. Brady’s name replaced Bowyer’s, which customarily is painted above the door windows of the race car.
Bowyer shared credit for the win with his crew chief, Brian Pattie, and team owner Michael Waltrip, as well as other team members who contributed to their effort.
|Clint Bowyer ran out of gas while doing a victory burnout. He had to walk to Victory Circle. Brian Pattie, his crew chief, gives him an enthusiastic greeting. Photo by Keri Luiz|
After the race, the trio cited some of the hardships they’d overcome: In 2011, Pattie lost his job as crew chief of Juan Pablo Montoya’s team. Bowyer lost his ride last year in the No. 33 Cheerios car, and in his early years of owning a team, Waltrip often worried whether he’d have to close shop.
“It means a lot, a lot to me,” Pattie said about the win. “I was in the same boat as he was. He lost his ride and I lost my job.”
“We are a place for refugees,” Bowyer quipped.
“These two didn’t have anywhere to go,” Waltrip responded.
|Clint Bowyer with team owner Michael Waltrip. Photo by Keri Luiz|
Busch, who had to sit out a race after NASCAR officials objected to the way he spoke to a reporter, tracked Bowyer down in Victory Lane to congratulate the winner.
“Just to have him come to Victory Lane spoke volumes about his character. He’s a champion of the sport. You can’t lose sight of that,” Bowyer said.
Busch’s No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet had no sponsor for the Sonoma race. He was challenging Bowyer until his car’s suspension broke after hitting a barrier of bolted tires in Turn 11.
“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 there. It takes a full team effort,” Busch said. “But I really wanted 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.
“To have a wounded car like that, I had to yield to Tony. I didn’t want to get up into the loose gravel and lose a bunch of spots. So it’s a great day for Phoenix racing and James Finch, who gave me this opportunity.”
Bowyer said he always was comfortable at Sonoma Raceway. It and Watkins Glen are the two road courses the normally “Go fast, turn left” stock car drivers face during the Sprint Cup season.
“I’ve enjoyed it, and that’s what you have to be at any race track. You know any given weekend, to be able to compete for a win,” he said. “But, man, never have I had a car like this.”
A few of the drivers voiced their preference for Watkins Glen over Sonoma during the news conferences on Friday, but Bowyer offered a different opinion.
"This has probably quietly been one of my favorite racetracks," he said.
In post-race interviews, Bowyer said when he was a dirt track racer, he never dreamed that he would be able to race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. "To have this dirt boy from Kansas in Victory Lane at this road course is big, trust me," he said.
But his father, Chris Bowyer, who also acts as one of Bowyer's spotters, had a little more to add. "He's the driver he is because of his dirt track (experience). I don't know whether it has anything to do with specifically this or not. I think you've got to be a versatile driver to adapt to a lot of different things and there's just nothing better than dirt track racing for young guys," he said.
"We was up there racing with the best, you know. I mean Kurt (Busch), and Tony (Stewart) was there, the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) was there. We didn't luck into that one. That's what I'm most proud of. To be up there running in that crowd, and to beat them."
|Clint Bowyer autographing items for fans. Photo by Keri Luiz|