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Standing battle doesn’t get much better than this

Sonoma has a habit of anointing first-time NASCAR Sprint Cup road race winners – Sunday’s win by Clint Bowyer was the sixth straight time the race was the first road course win for a cup driver.

Bowyer has proved to be a fast learner. 

Heading into Sunday’s race, in six starts at Sonoma, the Kansan had yet to finish off the lead lap. He’s notched fourth-place finishes three times, most recently in 2011. Bowyer had a series-high 455 green flag passes on the 1.99-mile layout since the inception of the Loop Data statistic in 2005.

Signing Bowyer away from Richard Childress Racing prior to the beginning of his season didn’t take long to pay off for Michael Waltrip Racing. Sunday’s race was Bowyer’s sixth career Cup win. Once upon a time, Jeff Gordon owned Sonoma’s road course, winning five times, including three victories in a row between 1998 and 2000.

Times, along with the Sprint Cup car and race procedures, have changed. 

Now, Gordon, a native of the nearby community of Vallejo, calls the 1.99-mile track “a challenge.”

His last victory came in 2006 before the introduction of the current car. “The new Chevy Impala came along and it changed everything,” he said. “We’re not able to shift things (weight) around as much as we used to. This car doesn’t change direction as much. It made it a little more challenging to drive and it’s really leveled the playing field.”

The competition, Gordon agreed, also is deeper. The series’ two road races, at Sonoma and in August at Watkins Glen International, once were an afterthought for many teams. No longer. “When I started, maybe half the field took short track cars to the road course and adapted to it,” said Gordon. “Now, pretty much every car is a special car for a road course.”

Then came double-file restarts. The right line for one corner can put a driver in the wrong line for the next.

“You have to push and shove a lot more to get that position after a restart,” he said. 

The first sixteen races into the 2012 season have had fourteen different winners. It just doesn’t get much more competitive than this season. Ten races remain until the lineup for NASCAR’s post season is finalized, but the current leaderboard is about as good as it gets.

Roush Fenway Racing’s Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champion and this year’s Daytona 500 winner, has an 11 point lead over teammate Greg Biffle. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits third, 14 points out of the lead. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is fourth, with defending champion, Tony Stewart in fifth place. Kevin Harvick has his Richard Childress Chevrolet in sixth.

Sunday’s winner Clint Bowyer is in seventh place in his Michael Waltrip Toyota, followed by Denny Hamlin in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Bowyer’s teammate, Martin Truex Jr., is in ninth place, with Brad Keselowski rounding out the top ten in the Penske Racing Dodge.

For Dale Earnhardt, Jr., “when” has become “what’s next?”

With a four-year, 143-race victory drought decisively broken at Michigan International Speedway, Junior can shift his focus on both long-term and immediate goals. Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte – who also ended a lengthy non-winning streak, 115 races dating to 2009 – are in the thick of the Sprint Cup Series championship hunt.

The last time Earnhardt held the points lead was October 2004. Sixteen races into the 2012 season, Earnhardt and Letarte have a series-leading 13 top-10 finishes and have completed all scheduled laps.

“I want to try to win a championship. That’s what you run the whole season for and our team has really, really good speed now,” said Earnhardt, who qualified for last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup after a two-year absence and finished seventh. “We ran well last year in the Chase, but we weren’t in the battle for the championship. “If we can put together this type of performance in the Chase, I don’t see why we can’t consider ourselves with an opportunity to challenge for the championship. I’ve never had bonus points for the Chase. So that’s neat.”

You may always be able to reach Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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