Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – SONOMA, CA – Clint Bowyer got to celebrate his June 10 Michigan victory an extra week thanks to NASCAR’s recent off-week, but he arrived in Northern California appearing ready to add to his season two-trophy haul and swap his victory beer for the region’s fine wine.
Bowyer won on the scenic 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway road course in 2012 and is one of only seven former winners in the field for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
And looking at the season’s big picture, Bowyer, 39, is now one of four multi-time winners joining Stewart-Haas Racing Ford teammate, five-time winner Kevin Harvick, and Toyota drivers, four-time winner and points leader Kyle Busch, and two-time winner Martin Truex Jr.
“You can see the happiness and fun that is in our group right now,’’ Bowyer conceded with a smile Friday morning before practice at Sonoma. “It is a ton of fun to be able to win at this level of auto racing. It is a dream come true to compete at this level and once you are sitting in Victory Lane and you’ve beaten the best of the best, there is no feeling like it. To be able to share that with the men and women of Stewart-Haas Racing in Victory Lane, there is absolutely no gratification like that.”
And there is good reason to believe the feel-good quotient will only multiply. Bowyer and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch lead all competitors with seven top-five finishes here in Sonoma. Bowyer has nine top 10s in 12 starts and his 82 laps led ranks sixth among the racers this weekend. Kurt Busch leads everyone with 197 laps out front. But Bowyer’s average finish of 10.667 tops the field.
Perhaps Bowyer’s success here in Sonoma may take some by surprise. The Kansas native is as down-home, classic NASCAR oval-like as it gets. His background is on dirt short tracks making a name for himself competing throughout the Midwest – a scene quite different than this weekend’s technical road course in the California high country.
But his record here at Sonoma and the way he has taken to this track is something that brings a wide grin to Bowyer’s face.
“I think you embrace this track and road racing in general just like you do Martinsville (a half-mile track),’’ Bowyer said. “Nobody shows up at Martinsville and goes to the top of the board and is fast and has success and navigates traffic to win that race right off the bat. It just doesn’t happen and it doesn’t happen here either.
“It is an acquired taste just like the wine right down the street. I am telling ya, it is. This place is a beast and so is that win the first time you try it. It is like, ‘Darn, I don’t know about all this.’ Next thing you know you are a little longer in the tooth and you are like, ‘Hey, let’s go get some wine!’
“This race track is so much like pulling in one of those vineyards as you go through life,’’ Bowyer continued. “You have to be able to have fun on this race track. It is a challenge. Each and every corner is different. There is no perfect setup or perfect line. It is literally one of the only tracks you go to where you are out there racing and have a smile on your face.
“You might even get a chuckle. You may go into the corner and slip up and be pissed because the guy behind you that you spent three laps passing got around you and maybe the next corner he drives off the track and you might be like, ‘Ha!’ That is the quick chuckle that I am talking about that only road racing or something like Sonoma can present.”
Coming off that win at Michigan and with his enviable track record here at Sonoma, Bowyer finds himself in prime position in the championship chase. He’s ranked fifth place in the standings, only four points behind fourth place Brad Keselowski – a fellow Ford driver.
Bowyer has two victories, four top-fives and a hefty eight top-10 finishes through 15 races. In the last five races, he has a runner-up at Dover and the win at Michigan.
“This is a humbling sport and I have been all over the place with it,’’ Bowyer said. “High, low and everywhere in between. It just makes you appreciate the ride you are on right now and the group that I am around.
“We are hitting on all eight cylinders and getting the most out of our weekends and starting to get the consistency back that we were kind of lacking last year. The capability is there within the team. It is a team effort. It was a team effort at Michigan and it will take a team effort this weekend to conquer this racetrack and the competition on it.”
Larson wants win at hometown track
If the right attitude can translate into a break-through trophy then Kyle Larson should be ready to gulp his share of fine Northern California wine straight from the winner’s oversized chalice Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.
Larson has celebrated there before – dominating the 2014 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race, leading every single lap in his first high profile NASCAR event at the scenic 11-turn road course. And he is the defending Busch Pole sitter for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
And while the versatile racer is as well-known for his dirt-track roots and prowess as his NASCAR rise to fame and popularity, the 25-year-old concedes he sure does love a road course challenge too. Especially when it’s essentially the Elk Grove, Californian’s “home track” – the very place he was famously photographed wearing a Jeff Gordon driver’s suit attending the summer NASCAR race as a young boy.
“I think it’s a lot of fun,’’ Larson said of road course racing. “It’s fun to get to do something totally different than what I ever grew up racing. A pavement oval is totally different than what I grew up doing, but a road course is way opposite.
“I enjoy it. I feel like I get better and better at it. To me, I feel like racing a stock car on a road course is more similar to a sprint car even because you can feel the suspension working more than you can on an oval. So, there are aspects of it that my background benefits to this more so than a normal oval race. I enjoy it. This is my home track so I get to see a lot of friends and family and hangout with people that I don’t get to see very often too.
“I enjoy this weekend a lot.”
It’s the first time in two years that Larson will be winless on the season as he arrives back home in Northern California. He visited Victory Lane twice last year before he arrived in Sonoma. But Larson has absolutely been a bright spot for his Chevrolet Camaro brand and is the highest ranking Chevy driver (10th) in the points standings right now.
He has four top-10 finishes in the last five races heading to Sonoma and he has three runner-up showings on the season (at Fontana, Calif., Bristol, Tenn. and Pocono, Pa.). Overall, he has nine top-10 efforts through the opening 15 races.
“I feel like our speed has been there all year really,’’ said Larson, who drivers the No. 42 Camaro for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I feel like speed wise we have been about the same as we were last year. I think you can look at Stewart-Haas, (they are) quite a bit better than they were last year. I feel like compared to the Gibbs cars we are kind of right where we were to end the season with them last year, so we were pretty good there, so no, I don’t feel like our team is frustrated at all.
“I think we look at it as there is a lot of room to gain which is nice because I feel like we are already competitive and if we get any bit better we will be in a good spot. So, I think our team is definitely optimistic.”
Following his dramatic win in the K&N Pro Series West four years ago, Larson has been especially eager to triumph at the Cup level on Sonoma’s 1.990-mile course. He has never started the race from a position lower than fifth. And the pole position and nine laps led last year were a career highlight for him here. His four finishes, however, have been more disappointing. He’s had essentially twin bills – two times he’s been 15th and he bookended those with a finish of 28th in his first race and a 25th-place showing last summer.
“Always qualify well here,’’ Larson said, with a grin. “I think we have the track record maybe from ’14 or ’15, so that is pretty cool. The pole here last year was neat.
“I would like to race well here soon. I don’t know what it is about the race, but I always seem to struggle a little bit. Hopefully, this year is a little bit different and can do a good job and get our team up front.”