The beating and banging that was widely expected Sunday afternoon at Sonoma really didn't materialize and the driver who dominated the race and ended up in victory lane wasn't one of the ones widely considered a favorite.
Using a two-stop strategy, Clint Bowyer assumed early control of the race after polesitter Marcos Ambrose faded from the lead 13 laps into the race and stayed there as pit stops cycled through and hung on to the lead on a green-white-checker finish, holding off Tony Stewart to win the Toyota/SaveMart 350K. The win was Bowyer's first on a road course and he became the eighth winner in the last eight races at Sonoma.
Believe it or not, the strongest threat to Bowyer's dominance in the waning laps of the race was Kurt Busch in his second race back from his one-week NASCAR suspension. Busch, the race's defending champion, closed onto Bowyer's back bumper with his underfunded and sponsorless red Chevy with 12 laps to go, but never was able to outbrake Bowyer on corner entry. After an apparent rear-suspension issue over the final few laps, Busch finished third.
There's no disputing that Bowyer and his car were king on Sunday. But part of the reason that he was able to lead, and lead large, for a race-high 71 laps was because of the lack of contact that we've become accustomed to at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, the two yearly road course visits on the Sprint Cup schedule.
In each of the previous five Sonoma races, there were at least five cautions. This year's race produced just two cautions, one for Tomy Drissi's crash into the tire barrier and another for an incident between Paul Menard and Kyle Busch with four laps to go. That's the fewest number of cautions in the track's history.
Why? Well, there weren't any cautions because there weren't any cautions. Because of the difficulty to pass with the current car and configuration (and parity) in the Sprint Cup Series, the usage of the chrome horn to complete a pass had almost gone from an "only when necessary" proposition to a necessity. That was especially true on the laps following double-file restarts, when multiple positions could be made up in the course of a single corner. That led to paybacks (see Vickers v. Stewart) and flaring tempers. (Said v. Biffle)
But at the beginning of Sunday's race, drivers seemed hellbent on exercising patience, getting strung out fairly quickly and easily making and conceding passes when the opportunities presented themselves. The first 82 of the race's scheduled 110 laps were run under green, which meant that thanks to the proliferation of green-flag pit stops and differing pit stop cycles, there were entire seconds of space between cars instead of mere tenths. The race's only real madness came on the penultimate lap — immediately after the final restart — when a handful of cars got together and went off-track. (The big loser in that affair was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went from a potential top 10 to a 23rd-place finish.)
Will we see this kind of patience at the Glen in seven weeks? The early guess here is no. That race is just the fourth before the Chase begins and in the next six races the battle for the wild card could be clearer. Or, if we continue at our current pace — four drivers between 11th and 20th have a win and no one has two — it could be a lot murkier. No matter the situation, there's likely to be more urgency, whether it's for Chase seeding or a Chase berth altogether. At this point, Sunday's relative lack of carnage seems like an outlier. But we'll have to see if it was, or this was a preview of a newer, cleaner brand of road course racing.
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