SONOMA, Calif. — Clint Bowyer 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. Although Bowyer finished fourth three previous 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,” Bowyer 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 by leading 71 of the 112 laps. Defending race 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 away when caution flew with four laps remaining.
Only Busch damaged his car with roughly eight laps to go, and he worried the entire caution period whether his Chevrolet was ruined and had no chance of catching Bowyer through the two-lap overtime sprint to the finish.
Bowyer raced side-by-side with Busch at the green flag, then cleared Busch and pulled away for the win.
“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.”
It was a strong day all-around for MWR, which got a fourth-place finish from Brian Vickers, who was back to NASCAR after racing last weekend at Le Mans. Martin Truex Jr. led 15 laps, and was running in the top 10 until a late-race incident dropped him to 22nd.
Tony Stewart passed Busch on the final lap to claim second. Busch wound up third.
He was emotional after – Busch missed Pocono earlier 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 in his strong finish.
“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.
Vickers was fourth for MWR, followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
Greg Biffle was seventh, followed by pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger and Joey Logano.
Most everyone believed the race would be a runaway win for either Ambrose or Gordon, but neither really contended.
Ambrose led the first 11 laps before plummeting through the field, and said the setup on his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford was just off.
“We really missed it,” he said. “We missed it bad, and we did good to recover and get a top-10 out of it. We will take it and move on. We got the pole and had a lot of speed; we just missed it for the race.
“We were slow. It was just terrible. We had no speed in the car and we paid the price.”
Gordon led one time for 13 laps before running out of gas as he was headed in for a scheduled pit stop.
There were only two cautions <0x2014> the fewest in track history for the Sprint Cup Series <0x2014> and so the race never shaped into the demolition derby most expected. Recent races on the 1.99-mile course had brought out road rage from drivers impatient to gain track position at a place with few passing zones.
It was never an issue on Sunday, though.
“I was happy about it,” Stewart said. “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.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ended his four-year losing streak last week at Michigan, failed to meet his goal of grabbing his first career top-10 at Sonoma. He was 15th on the final restart, but was stacked in traffic and spun, dropping him to 23rd.
“We had a good car, we’ve had better cars here, and we struggled all weekend,” he said. “We hung around and were going to finish in the top-15, and on green-white-checkered, there are going to be some victims.”