Perhaps Clint Bowyer’s win on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., should not have come as a surprise. After all, the seven-year NASCAR Sprint Cup veteran had recorded four top 10s in six starts at the 1.99-mile course prior to Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Still, Bowyer, a Kansas native with Midwest dirt-tracking roots, has never been considered anywhere near a “road course ringer,” as the NASCAR types like to label those who excel when turning left and right.
But Bowyer, crew chief Brian Pattie and their Michael Waltrip Racing crew became the eighth different team to go to Victory Lane at Sonoma in as many visits, fending off a feisty challenge from Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart in the final laps on the 12-turn road course.
“Quietly, we’ve had good runs here,” a beaming Bowyer said following the win. “This is probably, quietly, been one of my favorite racetracks.”
The victory was Bowyer’s first of the season and the first for MWR’s No. 15 team — a group pieced together late last season — and one Bowyer referred to as a bunch of “refugees.”
“Basically, (I) kind of lost my ride at RCR (in 2011), walked into a new program with a lot of unknowns, and I had a lot of confidence in what was going on,” Bowyer said of what brought him to MWR. “I still had confidence in myself. Michael, Rob Kaufmann (co-owner), everybody involved with MWR, paired me with Brian Pattie and paired me with a lot of good people and that’s what it takes to be successful in any good business and NASCAR racing is no exception.”
Pattie’s “refugee” status was not much different than Bowyer’s. A crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Pattie was given his walking papers in mid-July with the team floundering at 17th place in the point standings (it was 21st by season’s end. Waltrip came calling in the fall).
“I was in the same boat (Bowyer) was — he lost his ride and I lost my job,” Pattie said. “Last summer was eye-opening for me personally and career-wise. (I) had a lot of supporters call whenever times changed at my previous employer, and I’m just blessed to be here.”
That Bowyer, Pattie and crew have pieced together nine top 10s in less than a half season together, are solidly in the top 10 in points and now have a win in their pocket to fall back on speaks to the immediate chemistry alive and well within the team. And the progress made by the organization as a whole is evident in the other cars in the stable. Martin Truex Jr., in the No. 56 car, sits ninth in points (Bowyer is seventh), while Mark Martin and Brian Vickers have split duties in the No. 55 to the tune of four top 5s.
Bowyer’s move from Richard Childress Racing to MWR was seen by some as a lateral one, at best. But the Toyota-backed company that first took to the Cup Series in 2007 has grown exponentially. Waltrip credits a better working relationship with fellow Toyota team Joe Gibbs Racing as a major reason.
“I give Andy Graves a lot of credit any time I’m asked about where we are today,” Waltrip said. “The reason for that is simple: I went to him in January of 2011 and I said, ‘Are our cars as good as Job Gibbs’ cars?’ And he said, ‘No, they are not, because you don’t trust our process.’
“I said, ‘Well, we are changing directions, and we are going to start following you.’”
While JGR has outclassed MWR in the win column this season, the latter’s consistency and reliability win the day. And Bowyer’s No. 15 team is leading the charge, riding a streak of four consecutive runs of seventh or better. For a first-year group competing against established teams with years of experience together, it makes the bunch a dangerous — albeit unproven — one as the circuit hits the homestretch to NASCAR’s playoffs.
“It’s a long row to hoe before the Chase,” Bowyer said. “Everybody is in this sport because of the Chase and you can’t win a championship without being a part of that elite group.
“I missed it (the Chase banquet in Las Vegas) last year and it sucked to sit at home and watch. I did get to deer hunt a little bit but I would much rather be partying.”
If the post-race scene in Sonoma is any indication, Bowyer and crew have the chemistry to throw the most epic party Vegas has seen in some time.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro