Clint Bowyer took his first win for Michael Waltrip Racing at Sonoma. For Bowyer, who had spent his entire career with Richard Childress Racing before switching to MWR over the winter, the win was his first since defeating Jeff Burton at Talladega last fall.
“I'm super excited for everybody involved to be in victory lane with this group so early in the season. It's a dream come true,” an ecstatic Bowyer commented. “To switch teams like I did was a huge riskâ€¦ but it was obviously a chance for me to showcase my talents.
“It's huge towards the Chase and everything else. This is big for our confidence level. It's a young organization that's going to be in this sport a long time and I'm proud to be a part of it.”
The win was also one of huge significance for team-owner Michael Waltrip, for whom this was only the team's third victory in six years.
“This place just reminds me on how mightily Michael Waltrip Racing struggled when we started back in 2007,” Waltrip said. “We probably appreciate this more than anybody ever could, because we know how close we were to just not being around any more, just six months out of our start. So to stand up there be able to cheer with Brian Pattie (crew chief) and the team and see Clint take the checkered flag after all we have been through, it’s just really special.
“I'm really proud to sit here and say that Clint drove one of our cars to victory lane. It's a big deal for our team.”
Despite being the class of the field, Bowyer never had it easy, and withstood race-long pressure from a resurgent Kurt Busch, returning to the scene of his win 12 months ago. Despite getting Kyle Busch Motorsports' first win in the Nationwide Series with an accomplished drive at Richmond, Kurt has generally been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2012, and was even banned from competing at Pocono. His best performance since joining Phoenix Racing therefore could not have come at a better time, and will go some way to restoring his battered reputation. Although damage to his unsponsored #51 meant Busch was forced to relinquish second to Tony Stewart on the final lap, it was nevertheless a good day's work.
“It's an amazing day when you can do what we did today,” Busch told TV crews, still panting and visibly exhausted after 112 laps in the baking California sun. “I'm a little choked up because we were in position, I was very considerate to Bowyer who was going for his first win with the new team, and then, most importantly, I made a mistake. I just got into those tyres at turn 11â€¦ but I'm just glad that we brought it home third.”
Second was a welcome result for Stewart, his third podium finish in succession enough to put him fifth in points.
“It was just like we planned,” the reigning champion said. “We had planned to let everything get settled down for a couple of laps and then just take it one at a time. We had a really good car, but it just took all day to get that track position.”
After his Le Mans adventure last week, Brian Vickers made his NASCAR return and was thrilled with fourth place for MWR, although he felt he could have finished higher, with fresher tyres than those around him at the end.
“It was a great run for us, I'm just really happy,” said Vickers, who is hoping to secure a full-time deal with Waltrip's team for 2013. “I haven't had many Cup races this year, but we've made the most of them.”
After wrapping up his second pole in as many weeks, Marcos Ambrose was widely expected to romp away to the victory he has been so close to so many times at Sonoma. But the Richard Petty Motorsports driver lost the lead early on to Jeff Gordon and thereafter was unable to remain with the leaders, the Australian eventually finishing a disappointed eighth.
“We really missed it. I just feel bad for my Stanley team,” Ambrose 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.”
The main beneficiary of Ambrose's faux pas to win in 2010, Jimmie Johnson, was fifth ahead of Gordon, who had been in contention for victory before his chronic bad luck intervened yet again, this time with an empty fuel tank necessitating a slow crawl back to the pits. Greg Biffle gained a few points on Roush-Fenway team-mate and championship leader Matt Kenseth with a seventh place finish, while the man who took over from Busch at Team Penske, AJ Allmendinger, came home ninth. In a race with few incidents, much was made of the collision between Joe Gibbs Racing team-mates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano at the final hairpin. While Logano earned a belated 10th place, Hamlin was a miserable 35th, his second poor finish in a row after his dramatic fire at Michigan last week.
“At these road courses you have to be the aggressor unless you're going to get dumped. You have to do what you have to do to keep people behind you,” Logano explained. “I just started getting out of control and was wheel-hopping a little bit and when you start wheel hopping these things, it's really hard to get them back under control. I was sideways trying to avoid Denny and just clipped him and sent him around.
“It's a bummer – I didn't mean to – you don't want to take anyone out and you want to race clean and race hard. When you're running that hard with these guys and heavy race cars with this much tire wear and brake wear and all that, it's just difficult some times.”
The only other incident of note occurred when Kyle Busch rammed Paul Menard from behind at turn 5, causing both to spin in synchrony. Busch's 17th place finish meant he has not scored a top-10 since the Coke 600 in May, and may have to rely on his solitary Richmond victory to earn him a Wildcard spot in the Chase.