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Celebrating with water just won't do in Wine Country


SONOMA

Clint Bowyer sat on the podium Sunday, looked in front of him, saw the bottle of water on the dais and couldn't help himself. It's got to be better than this. He's an adult and he's having a very adult moment here.

"Why are we out here in Wine Country," said the winner of the Toyota/Save Mart 350, "drinking water?"

The man wanted the party to start then, not later at some place else away from inquisitive cameras and notebooks. No shame here, Bowyer thought, in making it known clear and obvious that this day couldn't extend much longer without an adult beverage. There was plenty of reason for this.

By mutual agreement, although it might have been something closer to a force-out, Bowyer separated from Richard Childress Racing last offseason. The man to his right on the podium, his crew chief Brian Pattie, was looking for a job around the same time, his relationship with driver Juan Pablo Montoya having wilted. And the man to his left, team owner Michael Waltrip, before Sunday had placed only two drivers in the winner's circle since 2007, a total of 428 driver-starts from 14 different drivers. There were moments Waltrip was close to being out of business.

"We are a place for refugees," Waltrip said without apology.

So, yeah, of course, they wanted a drink, a red preferably, from the winner's trophy, in a beautiful glass goblet.

Too bad it had been broken. Yes, in the transference from Victory Lane to the media, the base of the goblet suffered an unwitting collision with some metal in its handling and had snapped. Ah, but the raceway folks had a backup goblet ready for the sipping. So before Bowyer could say "this wine has a nice nose," John Cardinale of the track had summoned a bottle of cabernet to the podium.

Which led quickly to a flow of emotion to follow the flow of wine.

"I thought it was the best race that I've literally ever seen," Bowyer said with only a slight grin. "Best race in NASCAR history. I promise. That's exactly how I feel."

Moments later Waltrip couldn't resist the free flow and said something that didn't have anything to do with anything but what the heck, this was his third owner victory in five years and he was allowed.

"There was this one time when they didn't have any wine," Waltrip said. "They had water and Jesus turned it into wine."

In the 24 years that I have covered NASCAR here at Sears Point/the raceway at Sonoma/Who The Heck Knows, this was the most enjoyable post-race press conference of a winner. All three men had been on the periphery of the sport, present but hardly accounted for, factors in that they only filled out rosters. To climb out of the muck of disrespect ...

And to do it with Tony Stewart trying to chase down Bowyer in those last two laps ...

"When you get a grizzly bear (Stewart) hunting you down," Bowyer said, "it's not a good feeling."

Outlasting Stewart in those final two laps and Kurt Busch in the previous 52 laps and taking the lead from four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon on Lap 24, well, it sent Bowyer into a tizzy usually reserved for 7-year olds.

"I just beat him (Gordon)," Bowyer said. "I'm telling ya, I passed him! I beat him! You have no idea, a young racer from Kansas, you don't forget stuff like that."

Too many times in sports, victory never reaches jubilation because the arduous journey drains the celebrant of that emotion. The post-victory emotion is relief or a quick smile. Not Sunday. This was as real as it gets and as sensational as anything short of a Super Bowl or World Series championship. A team so disregarded, Waltrip had no qualms about placing the victory in perspective.

"It was just five short years ago," Waltrip said, "that we were here and wondering what our future was like and how close we were to just not being around anymore."

Now they are. A NASCAR victory is an anchor to any team, a solid hold in an industry in which the winds of change blow unpredictably and scuttle fortunes. After all, if Busch didn't ding his car with eight laps to go to make it a touch unstable, he very could have caught Bowyer and you wouldn't have read what you just did.

Or, as Clint Bowyer might say, sipping from the goblet, whatever.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.