Clint Bowyer emerged from the final pit stop of Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 with four fresh tires and five cars to pick off for his first Sprint Cup victory of the season.
Unfortunately, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver had to settle for third when he couldn’t fend off a challenge by Kyle Busch on the final restart.
“I tried, just came up a little short,” said Bowyer, who earned MWR’s first top five of the season. “Kyle had a really good short-run car ,and after a handful of laps, I was able to get by him on the run before that. I knew that wasn’t going to be the case (on the final restart). I was just going to have to go. I tried to get up through him and get rough with him and beat him to it, but he beat me to that situation and won.
Bowyer was in sixth on the last restart with seven laps remaining, trailing leader Jimmie Johnson and four other drivers who also hadn’t pitted during the final caution. But Busch, who restarted on the inside line in seventh, had the advantage.
“It was wild, I mean, we were on (fresh) tires there, and you knew there was going to be some of them that stayed out,” Bowyer said. “Unfortunately, I was on that outside line, and my only chance was to just try to hammer my way up through them.”
“Kyle was able to sneak up on the inside of them and kind of beat me to the punch line.”
Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth, also didn’t make it easy on Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota.
“You’ve got to get rough, you’ve got to get aggressive,” Bowyer said. “Matt and I got hooked up and about gave away our whole day there. It just turned me right and damn near wrecked (me).”
Bowyer, who started sixth and led four laps, eventually passed Johnson and the four cars that didn’t pit, but he also lost second to Kyle Busch’s older brother, Kurt, on the penultimate lap.
It still was a step forward for Bowyer, who made a clever move in earning his first top five since last October at Talladega Superspeedway.
Had Bowyer won, it would have been the first for MWR since Brian Vickers won the fall race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2013. That race was seven races before the infamous Richmond race that saw Clint Bowyer spin out in the closing laps in an apparent effort to help MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr. get into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
When the yellow waved the last time Sunday for Casey Mears’ broken axel on Lap 100, Bowyer, running second behind Johnson, dived into the pits and brought most of the lead-lap cars with him while Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy, which led a race-high 45 laps, stayed on the track.
“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t there, you know what I mean,” said Bowyer, who entered the race with an average finish of 9.2 at Sonoma, his best on the circuit. “(Johnson), he was waiting to see what everybody was going to do, and I was going to wait until it was too late for him and then jolt in there, and I saw (Kyle Busch) go, and I was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait, don’t go yet.’ I was afraid (Johnson) would try to jerk it in there.”
But the six-time series champion didn’t, setting up a battle for the win between Bowyer and Kyle Busch that effectively was decided in a battle for sixth on the final restart.
“(Kyle Busch) had the right line, and unfortunately I didn’t,” said Bowyer, whose winless drought is approaching three years (Charlotte Motor Speedway, October 2012). “He beat me to the punch line, beat me to the lead and the rest was history.”