Clint Bowyer's leap of faith pays off

SONOMA, Calif. -- There is a new big-boy team in NASCAR. If you've being paying attention this season, it's not a surprise.

Michael Waltrip Racing has been coming on all year. The only thing MWR lacked in 2012 was a victory. Mission accomplished.

Clint Bowyer, the hired gun who came to MWR this season after six years at Richard Childress Racing, finally got the organization into the win column this year with a dominating victory Sunday on the Sonoma road course.

"To have this dirt [track] boy from Kansas in Victory Lane here is big, trust me," Bowyer said. "It's just a dream come true. To switch teams like I did was a huge new chance for me and a chance to showcase my talent.

"Basically, I lost my job at RCR, but I still had confidence in myself. Michael paired me with [crew chief] Brain Pattie and a lot of good people. Michael stuck it out here, and I'm telling you, he's fixing to reap the benefits."

Waltrip remembered the first time his new team came to Sonoma five years ago.

"We put [former Cup champion] Terry Labonte in my car to make sure we made the race," Waltrip said. "We were wondering about our future and whether we would survive.

"We were close to not being around anymore just six months after we started. After all we've been through, this is really special. Thanks to Clint for taking a risk, really a leap of faith, to come join us."

That leap of faith paid off for Bowyer on a day when the normally volatile 12 turns of the Napa Valley track, where tempers have raged as sheet metal was sheered in recent years, was as calm as an Amsterdam coffee house.

The race was caution-free for the first 81 laps. Even a green-white-checkered finish failed to produce any zaniness up front.

The way Bowyer was driving, it probably wouldn't have mattered. He never had won on a road course, but the Emporia, Kan., racer was the true road-course ringer in this one. Bowyer led 71 of 112 laps in the No. 15 Toyota, but it was the final 24 laps where he really showed his stuff.

Lap after lap down the stretch, 2011 Sonoma winner Kurt Busch tried to rattle Bowyer from behind, bumping Bowyer several times in the treacherous hairpin turn. Bowyer never wavered.

"He did great," Busch said. "But I showed him a lot of respect. I bumped him a few times, but I was really patient."

Busch had a rear suspension problem in the No. 51 Chevy before the final restart and got passed by Tony Stewart for second. But if ever a man won by losing it was Busch, from being suspended two weeks ago to a third-place finish in respectable fashion Sunday.

Busch was emotional after the race. He was the first driver to congratulate Bowyer.

"To show up with a third-rate budget and almost go to Victory Lane, that's big," Busch said. "If I can get my head on straight here, I can race every weekend and go for victories."

It's starting to look like MWR can go for victories now on a regular basis. Bowyer and MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. rank in the top 10 in the Cup standings. They've been on the verge of winning all season.

All three MWR drivers were strong Sunday. Truex led 15 laps and was fifth of the GWC restart, but got caught up in last-lap mishap and finished 22nd.

After all we've been through, this is really special. Thanks to Clint for taking a risk, really a leap of faith, to come join us.

-- Michael Waltrip

Brian Vickers, a Sonoma villain a year ago when he deliberately wrecked Stewart, finished fourth in only his third start of the season.

Vickers is racing part time for MWR when veteran Mark Martin sits out, but Vickers hopes his second top-5 this year will lead to bigger and better things.

"If two top-5s doesn't do it, I don't know what will," Vickers said, moments before Waltrip said in the media center that a fourth car for him in 2013 is part of the plan if they can secure the sponsorship.

MWR was the best team Sunday. It's no fluke. Waltrip's boys now are one of the better teams in Sprint Cup, something no one would have said a year ago.

"It's really impressive what Michael has done there," said Stewart, who became a team owner himself in 2009. "It's cool to see. He started from scratch and has gotten better and better every year. They had a very productive offseason and gained more than a lot of other teams. What they've done this year speaks volumes."

Waltrip and Bowyer have helped each other at a time when they both needed it. Bowyer looked on the wall in the media center and saw a photo of Jeff Gordon, a five-time winner at Sonoma.

"And I just beat that guy," Bowyer said. "And I held off two former champions [Stewart and Busch] at the end. You don't forget stuff like that. I'm just thankful to Michael for surrounding me with so many good people.

"Now, why are we in here drinking water in wine country?"

Waltrip had a reply: "You know, there was a guy once who changed water into wine."

MWR's turnaround isn't that impressive, but Waltrip knows they've come a long way.

"To be contenders now week in and week out is amazing," Waltrip said. "We are very grateful and thankful people."