Date: June 24, 2012
Event: Save Mart 350k (Round 16 of 36)
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Location: Road Course at Sonoma, Calif. (10-turn, 1.99-mile layout)
Start/Finish: 8th/3rd (Running, completed 112 of 112 laps)
Point Standing: 27th (331 points, 265 out of first)
Winner: Clint Bowyer of Michael Waltrip Racing (Toyota) in a green/white/checkered finish
Kurt Busch poured his heart and soul into the Save Mart 350k in Sonoma, Calif., and came within a whisper of winning before a suspension issue prevented him from contending for the win. With one of the best cars at Sonoma, the driver of the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet competed in the top-three for the majority of the race before settling for a third-place finish at the 10-turn, 1.99-mile layout Sunday afternoon.
“It’s an amazing day when you can do what we did today,” said Busch, winner of the 2011 Save Mart 350k at Sonoma. “I’m a little choked up because A, we were in position. B, I was very considerate to (Clint) Bowyer, who was going for his first win with the new team. And then C, which was most important, I made a mistake. I got into those tires in the hairpin turn, and for years they have never been bolted down. They were bolted down this time. It bent the right front up and it broke the panhard bar, and I’m just glad we brought it home third. If I was smarter, I would have let Tony Stewart go a lap, a half-a-lap ahead. Maybe he could have got to (Clint) Bowyer for a big finale. Just an unbelievable day with No. 51 Chevrolet.”
It was a solid race weekend for the Phoenix Racing Team from start to finish as Busch was among the fastest drivers in Friday’s lone practice session. He parlayed that practice into an eighth-place qualifying effort before hopping a plane to Elkhart Lake, Wis., where he competed in the Nationwide Series race at Road America on Saturday. Busch didn’t get a chance to participate in practice Saturday at Sonoma due to racing at Road America, but that didn’t slow him. 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion Busch started the race at Sonoma in eighth place and was in the top-five by lap 19.
The only issue Busch reported on the No. 51 Chevrolet during the early portion of the race was tight handling entering right-hand turns. It was an issue that became less of a problem as the race continued. Green-flag pit stops started taking place on lap 30. The No. 51 Chevrolet team was one of a number teams that employed the two-stop strategy. So Busch made his first pit stop for four tires and fuel after leading lap 34.
Once green-flag stops cycled through, Busch once again was in the top-five and back to third place by lap 50. Busch was in second place and charging toward the lead when the second round of green-flag pit stops started taking place. The team made what would be its final stop on lap 72 for four tires, fuel and a slight air pressure adjustment.
The first caution of the race was displayed for an accident in turn 10 on lap 83 with Busch in second place. The team stuck with its two-stop strategy, thus placing Busch in second for the restart. As the laps wound down, Busch started to pressure race leader Clint Bowyer for the lead. Busch was on Bowyer’s bumper as the race wound down to 10 laps to go. With eight laps to go and hoping to make a pass for the lead, Busch got into the final turn a bit hard where he made slight contact with the wall of tires serving as a retaining wall. Because the tires were bolted down for the first time in event history, the contact damaged the rear suspension. Busch continued but was competing at an obvious handling disadvantage.
The race was slowed by caution on lap 107. Busch was in second-place when green-flag racing resumed and hung with Bowyer for a good portion of the first lap before fading just a bit. The handling on the car became more and more difficult and he eventually surrendered second to a fast-closing Tony Stewart to score the first top-five finish of the year for Phoenix Racing.
Bowyer won the Save Mart 350k to score his sixth career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his first at Sonoma.
Tony Stewart finished .829 of a second behind Bowyer in the runner-up spot, while Busch, Brian Vickers and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top-five. Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger and Joey Logano comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were two caution periods for a total of seven laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the 112-lap race, which was extended two laps by a green-white-checkered finish.
With round 15 of 36 complete, Busch is 27th in the championship point standings with 331 points, 265 behind series leader Matt Kenseth.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Kentucky 400 on Saturday, June 30 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta. The race starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by TNT beginning with its pre-race show at 6:30 p.m.
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