Clint Bowyer claimed his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win for Michael Waltrip Racing and his first on a road course by holding off Kurt Busch and a charging Tony Stewart on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.
Bowyer became the pacesetter early on, claiming the lead from Jeff Gordon on lap 25 and only losing it through the pit cycles. While others struggled with tire wear, he was able to remain consistent enough throughout, running lean and still being quick up front.
Phoenix Racing driver Busch seemed to have the measure of his rival after they had both completed their final stops but suspension damage from clipping an inside barrier close to the apex of the final turn meant he was not able to keep Bowyer's pace in the closing laps.
Stewart (Stewart-Haas), who had pitted during the first of only two cautions while the leaders stayed out, entered the battle for the win when the yellows waved for a incident ignited by Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch making contact with Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard. Equipped with fresher tires than Bowyer and Busch, he was able to pass the Phoenix Chevrolet for second place on the final lap of a green-white-checkered finish, eventually running out of time to attempt to snatch victory.
"I thought it was the best race that I've literally ever seen," Bowyer joked. "Best race in NASCAR history. I promise. That's exactly how I feel...
"We had a really good race car. There was a point there where I didn't think that I was going to be able to hold [Busch] off. He was strong in a couple areas off [Turn] 10 where I knew that sets you up for a good passing zone, and I was trying to get better in there. But every time I tried to push a hard lap, I would slip up and actually lose time."
Behind Stewart, Busch enjoyed his best result in what has been a tough season both on and off the track for the 2004 Cup champion, who muscled his way to third despite his car's damage.
"I just made a little mistake there in Turn 11," said Busch. "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."
Rounding out a great day for MWR and fresh from his Le Mans experience last week, Brian Vickers finished fourth while running the same strategy as Stewart, and in only his third start of the season.
Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson ran solidly among the top five all day and eventually finished fifth ahead of his teammate Jeff Gordon, who recovered from running out of fuel just before his final stop of the day.
Polesitter Marcos Ambrose (Petty) failed to translate his qualifying speed into long runs and dropped quickly in the order after losing the lead to Gordon early on. Following his last stop he was able to get back in top-10 contention, eventually finishing eighth.
Points leader Matt Kenseth was 13th for Roush Fenway while Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr was involved in a late incident which drew a 23rd place-finish, his worst of 2012.
Earnhardt Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya, expected to be a contender for victory, ran in the top 10 early on before experiencing apparent electrical issues that hampered him for most of the afternoon.
Results - 112 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota 2h39m55.000s
2. Tony Stewart Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 0.829s
3. Kurt Busch Phoenix Chevrolet + 1.093s
4. Brian Vickers Waltrip Toyota + 1.625s
5. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 2.692s
6. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 3.650s
7. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 3.878s
8. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 4.246s
9. AJ Allmendinger Penske Dodge + 4.418s
10. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 5.131s
11. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 5.329s
12. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 5.776s
13. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 6.402s
14. Kasey Kahne Hendrick Chevrolet + 6.596s
15. Casey Mears Germain Ford + 6.788s
16. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 7.147s
17. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota + 7.415s
18. Ryan Newman Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 7.670s
19. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 8.318s
20. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 8.618s
21. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 9.592s
22. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 13.049s
23. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 38.632s
24. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 1 lap
25. Scott Speed Leavine Ford + 1 lap
26. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 1 lap
27. David Ragan Front Row Ford + 1 lap
28. Aric Almirola Petty Ford + 2 laps
29. Boris Said FAS Lane Ford + 2 laps
30. Josh Wise Front Row Ford + 2 laps
31. Landon Cassill BK Toyota + 2 laps
32. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 3 laps
33. JJ Yeley Robinson-Blakeney Toyota + 5 laps
34. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 5 laps
Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota 98 laps
Travis Kvapil BK Toyota 92 laps
Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet 84 laps
Tomy Drissi Baldwin Chevrolet 78 laps
Robby Gordon Gordon Dodge 73 laps
David Mayhew Parsons Ford 25 laps
Stephen Leicht Circle Sport Chevrolet 22 laps
Chris Cook Humphrey Smith Toyota 13 laps
Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 1 lap