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Quite unexpected: A Clint Bowyer victory, and a magnanimous, emotional Kurt Busch

Quite unexpected: A Clint Bowyer victory, and a magnanimous, emotional Kurt Busch

It got a little wild at times in Sunday's Sonoma 350 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   SONOMA, Calif.
   No, it wasn't the meanest, roughest NASCAR race of the season.
   In fact there was remarkably little bumping and grinding.
   But Sunday's Sonoma 350 wound up in a dramatic, and quite unexpected, duel between Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch, two men who have been under the gun this season, each for a different reason.
   Busch's theatrics, and that suspension, are well known. He's had several run-ins with the media....so it was stunning that after his post-race interview, a clearly emotional Busch was applauded by the assembled journalists.
   Busch's career at this moment is on the ropes. He's trying to hang on in the sport, literally. His team has no sponsor...and he was, now jokingly calling it Team Tiger's Blood, for the 'Charlie Sheen' rips he's endured lately.
   One day, one race, is not enough for redemption, but Busch certainly made a huge statement in his handling of everything here Sunday, on the track and in victory lane congratulating Bowyer and afterwards too.

 Jeff Gordon (24) had one of the best cars in the field, and so did Marcos Ambrose (black car left). But both had trouble Sunday, Gordon running out of gas, Ambrose with chassis issues (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
   And Bowyer:
    He too, and his new crew chief Brian Pattie, and his new team owner Michael Waltrip are all trying to rebound big-time this season, their first all together.
   Waltrip's been long-suffering, and very patient as a team owner in this sport, under the gun nearly every week it seems for several years now. But this season he's turned everything around, and in surprising form.
    Not only with Bowyer, but with newcomer Mark Martin and veteran Martin Truex Jr. and part-timer Brian Vickers. All those drivers have been struggling in part in their careers, and now, with the addition of competition director Scott Miller, and with some sage advice from Toyota's ....the Waltrip operation has clearly turned a corner, on all fronts. This season every week Waltrip's men are contenders, and it's never been like that before.
    Pattie was dumped at the end of last season by team owner Chip Ganassi after years working with Juan Pablo Montoya.
    Vickers, who rallied to a stunning fourth in the 350, is trying to save his career too, with each race either a step higher up the ladder or out the door.
    And Bowyer, after several successful seasons with team owner Richard Childress, couldn't come to terms on a new contract and thus moved on down the road, to the then-still questionable Waltrip operation -- which is coming out of all this angst in fine form.

  Crew chief Bria Pattie dumps Sonoma champagne on Clint Bowyer's head (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Waltrip too was emotional, because he remembers all too well "how mightily Michael Waltrip Racing struggled when we started back in 2007.  We came here and put Terry Labonte in my car (here) just so we could be sure of making the race.   
    "Just five short years ago... we were here and wondering what our future was like and how we were going to survive.  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 and the team and see Clint take the checkered flag, after all we have been through, it's just really special."

    Bowyer himself was downright giddy:
    "I just looked up and Jeff Gordon is sitting there on the wall, and he's won this race many times, he's a champion of this sport -- and I just beat him.  I'm telling ya! I passed him, I beat him. 
    "You have no idea...for a young racer from Kansas, you don't forget stuff like that."


  The top of the hill can get messy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Bowyer has talent and enthusiasm, and it was surprising that he and Childress couldn't come to terms: "It was very nerve-racking at times in the winter. I basically kind of lost my ride at RCR, and walked into a new program with a lot of unknowns.
I've had good teammates and I've had good stuff, but never like this at this magnitude.  This is a young group.  Michael stuck it out and I'm telling you, he's fixing to reap the benefits.  He's worked hard.  Our marketing department does a great job and this is I think the first of many to come.  To have this dirt boy from Kansas in victory lane at this road course is big, trust me."

   For Pattie too: "It means a lot, it means a lot to me.  I was in the same boat he was -- he lost his ride, and I lost my job.
   "Last summer (when he lost his job with Montoya) was eye?opening for me, personally and career?wise. I'm just blessed to be here."
To which Bowyer could joke "We are a place for refugees."

  Marcos Ambrose, oddly, never challenged after the opening laps (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Waltrip says he and partner Rob Kaufmann figured out just over a year ago that they needed to make some major business changes if they expected to succeed.
    "I give Andy Graves a lot of credit for where we are today," Waltrip says. "I went to him in January 2011 and asked 'Are our cars as good as Job Gibbs' cars?'
     "He said 'No, they are not -- because you don't trust our process.  Your people don't believe in it; your direction is not to follow us.'
      "I said 'Well, we are changing directions, buddy -- we are going to start following you."

    The final miles Bowyer conceded were very tense, even though he drove smooth and hit his marks, most of them at least.
   "I knew Kurt really had a good car, and I started to get away from him... but I knew some guys (had fresher tires), and I looked in the mirror and the old grizzly himself, Tony, was one of them, and he was in third place."
   The track was very slick, he said. "I drove off into turn 10 and about drove off the track. It was very, very slick off 10... and it set me up into 11 and I about spun out.
    "So I backed off a little bit. Then we got back to turn four and Regan Smith was all over the track, parts were everywhere, all over the track getting into turn seven, and I about spun out again.
    "And then that green?white-checkered, everything that's going through your mind  -- You know you're close on fuel you, and know you have to keep two champions of this sport behind you... and you know you have no business leading this damn thing.
   "It was definitely nerve?wracking, but Kurt raced me clean.  He roughed me up and let me know he was there....but never did anything to jeopardize either of us.
    "Just to have him come to victory lane spoke volumes about his character.  He's a champion of the sport.
    "I know there's been a lot of negative around him, but he had a lot of positives today for Kurt Busch.  He had an extremely good run.  They didn't have a sponsor on the car but for him to be competing for a win in that equipment that has never done that, that boy can drive.
    "And when you give him the confidence and the direction -- and sometimes I guess the discipline to get the job done -- he's certainly capable of it.
    "He had me on my toes. He had me scared to death today."


   A beautiful track, a beautiful day, but where was all that mean and nasty payback action these drivers promised us? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Clint Victory

I love Clint's reference to Tony as "old Grizzly".

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