SONOMA — Enjoying a mildly comfortable lead with a few laps left in the Toyota/Save Mart 350, driving a car that had proved to be the fastest on the track for most of the day, Clint Bowyer knew there was just one thing that could wreck his chances at victory: a yellow flag, which would force a restart.
Bam! There it was. With the leaders on lap 106, Paul Menard had trouble in Turn 11, the infamous hairpin on the raceway at Sonoma, and he wound up spinning out along with Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya. The yellow flag came down, and Bowyer's blood pressure went through the roof.
"I sucked so much air in, my car stalled," Bowyer said later. "I was like, &‘Oh, noooo.'"
Six laps later, Bowyer was finally able to exhale. He won his first race of the year and his first ever on a road course, holding off charges by Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart to win an exciting green/white/checkered finish that added two laps to the scheduled total of 110.
It was anything but easy, as a race that seemed uneventful for most of the afternoon turned intense when it mattered most.
There were only two cautions all day, a record low for a NASCAR Sprint Cup event at the raceway formerly known as Infineon. The second of those provided all the drama the race needed.
Bowyer led 62 of the final 65 laps, but he knew he was in for a challenge. Kurt Busch, the defending Sonoma champion, was hard on his tail on the restart. Fortunately for Bowyer, Busch's car was damaged. With about eight laps to go, he had hit a stack of colored tires on the inside of Turn 11. In the past, the tires were free-floating "speed bumps;" this year they were bolted, and Busch broke his front suspension and rear panel bar. He couldn't muster the control to get past Bowyer.
"Kurt raced me clean," Bowyer said. "He bumped me and roughed me up and let me know he was there, but never did anything to jeopardize either one of us."
Next up was Stewart, who won here in 2001 and 2005. He passed Busch on lap 110 and set his sights on Bowyer, but didn't find the power to overtake him.
"Honestly, when you have an opportunity like that, you can force yourself into mistakes, and I thought Clint did a good job because of that," Stewart said. "Didn't make any."
Bowyer's clean run was the culmination of his efforts at Sonoma. He had four top-10 finishes here in the past five years, finishing fourth three times. Now he has a victory here. It bumped Bowyer, 33, to seventh in the Sprint Cup standings. Matt Kenseth, who finished 13th, retained the series overall points lead, 11 ahead of Greg Biffle (seventh Sunday).
Stewart wound up second, and Busch third. They were followed by Brian Vickers (Bowyer's Michael Waltrip Racing teammate, who hadn't started a Sprint Cup race since April 1), Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who ran out of gas at one point and had to coast to pit row.
Busch and Stewart both had a lot to feel good about.
Busch didn't even have a sponsor for his No. 51 Phoenix Chevrolet. And while his competitors were practicing here Saturday, he was gunning it in a Nationwide race at Road America in Wisconsin; he flew to California that night. The bad boy of NASCAR has been suspended for one race and scolded by his team owner this year. And he had more problems than a dislodged panel bar Sunday. His helmet blower stopped working halfway through the race, and his car had overheating problems of its own. His radio was going in and out.