To be bluntly honest, the two comments most often heard during the running of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway were:
– The race was extremely boring. All the talk was that the double-file restarts after cautions would be treacherous and exciting.
Problem was that for the majority of the race there were no cautions and thus, no restarts. The 110-lap event ended with just two cautions for seven laps.
Two caution periods is a Sonoma record, breaking the mark of three set four times previously. The seven caution laps ties the record set in 1992.
– The race broadcast on TNT was mediocre, or downright bad, as some declared. There were far too many commercials – during which on-track incidents and lead changes were missed – and too much attention was given to camera “trickery” rather than outright racing.
All of that may be, indeed, true – depending upon your opinion, of course. But what cannot be denied is that a couple of late race incidents helped to set up a truly exciting finish that involved some improbable players.
In other words, when it was all over, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 saved the best for last.
And the cast for this finale was not entirely composed of today’s NASCAR’s most prominent, winning stars.
Clint Bowyer won the race and was victorious for the first time since Talladega last October, when he drove for Richard Childress. It was his first win with Michael Waltrip Racing.
He won over Tony Stewart, who has won twice this season and has seldom been apart from fan or media attention.
In what has to be a truly unforeseen development, Brian Vickers finished fourth in only his third NASCAR Sprint Cup start of the season.
Vickers drives for MWR in races not scheduled for Mark Martin. Once a driver for the defunct Red Bull Racing team, Vickers has battled back from health problems – he entered only 11 events in 2010 because of blood clots – and is in search of a full-time ride on the Cup circuit.
This season he has been most impressive. His fourth-place run at Sonoma is his second among the top five in three starts. He finished fifth at Bristol in March.
At Sonoma he helped give MWR two finishes among the top four.
Then there was the much-maligned Kurt Busch, who won at Sonoma last year. However, at the time he was racing for Penske Racing, which let him go at the end of the season because of his confrontations with the media and overall impertinent, unacceptable off-track behavior.
Busch drives for James Finch this season. And, unfortunately, it appears the lack of control that got him into trouble last year (and in years before that), did not abate.
However, at Sonoma, Busch once again proved that he has, inarguably, driving talent. In a car considered at best a second-tier contender, Busch spent most of the race at the front, battled with Bowyer for the lead and wound up in third place.
It is his only top-five finish of the season. And as much credit as he deserves, a fair measure must be given to Finch’s team, which obviously prepared and serviced its Chevrolet well at Sonoma.
For his part, Bowyer admitted he was uncertain about his ability to establish success at MWR, especially after he had become rooted with Childress – which might have never become dismantled had proper sponsorship had been found for 2012.
But results have been most favorable. With his win Bowyer tightens his grip on a spot in the Chase. He’s seventh in points and his victory serves as an insurance policy.
Teammate Martin Truex Jr., who ran well at Sonoma for a time, is in ninth place. It’s been a good year for MWR.
“It’s huge towards the Chase and everything else,” Bowyer said of his victory. “This is big for our
“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.
“What a wonderful opportunity at this stage in my career to make this jump and make it work.
“All these guys work together; the crew chiefs and engineering staff – everybody at TRD (Toyota Racing
Development) – and that’s what it takes.”
Had Vickers been a non-entity in the race it’s likely few would have been surprised.
Instead, he was a star and as such, it would appear he has increased his worth as a driver who should have a full-time ride.
“It was a great run for us, I’m just really happy,” said Vickers, who competed at LeMans this year.
“I haven’t had many Cup races this year, but we’ve made the most of them.
“Can’t thank the effort by the guys enough. They gave me a great car. It took me a few laps to get used to
It’s been a while since I’ve driven a big, heavy car. I’ve been racing sports cars.”
Vickers admitted he knew how important it was for him to acquire good finishes if he wanted to make a
full-time return to NASCAR.
“If two top-fives doesn’t do it, then I don’t know what will,” he said. “I can’t take all the credit.
Everyone at MWR is putting great cars on the race track.
“Rodney (Childers, crew chief) has done a great job. All the guys have done a great job. They’ve all made it possible for me to take the car and put it in the top five.”
For his part, Busch drove a gallant race. His duel with Bowyer over the closing laps was riveting and the result might have been different if not for a small mistake and the pressure Busch felt from behind as Stewart challenged him.
“The final restart with 20 something to go, I was patient. I was very patient with Bowyer,” Busch said.
“I got to his rear bumper, three, four times in turn 11 and bumped him.
“No banzai moves here. There’s a lot of respect that I was trying to give.
“I’m a bit choked up. I just made a little mistake there in turn 11. Those tires have never been bolted down,ever, and I clipped a set of tires and it broke the front suspension and the rear panel bar and I couldn’t compete for the win after that, so a mistake there.
“But if I can get my head on straight here and after the coming races, then I’m able to compete every weekendand go for victories.”
Yes, it might have been dull for quite a while but in the end, the Infineon race provided its share of drama.
And with an unlikely cast of characters.