By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Clint Bowyer and his crew chief both needed jobs at the end of last season. They found them at Michael Waltrip Racing, a team that survived a near-collapse in its first season only to struggle in its bid to rise above mediocrity.
The team then picked up Mark Martin, who needed a team that would let him race a partial schedule. Later came Brian Vickers, who was out of work but willing to fill the seat for some of Martin's off days. The team overhauled its approach, changed its way of thinking, and made sweeping upgrades throughout the organization.
It's made for a dramatically improved organization all year, and now MWR has its first victory of the season.
Bowyer, led by former Juan Pablo Montoya crew chief Brian Pattie, earned his first win on a road course Sunday by holding off Kurt Busch at Sonoma.
"I've had good teammates and good stuff before, but never like this," said Bowyer, who left Richard Childress Racing at the end of last season when a contract extension couldn't be completed.
"This is a young group, Michael stuck it out and I'm telling you, he's fixing to reap the benefits. He's worked hard."
Waltrip was beaming after the win, his third since the team was formed in 2007.
"This place just reminds me on how mightily Michael Waltrip Racing struggled when we started," Waltrip said. "Just five short years ago we were here and wondering what our future was like and how we were going to survive. We probably appreciate this more than anybody ever could, because we know how close we were to just not being around anymore, just six months out of our start.
"So to stand up there, be able to cheer with Brian Pattie and the team and see Clint take the checkered flag after all we have been through, it's just really special."
Bowyer had to hold off Busch on the winding 1.99-mile road course. Although Bowyer finished fourth three previous times on this road course, his background is on dirt tracks and this style of racing isn't his strong suit.
So the irony of winning Sunday wasn't lost on Bowyer.
"To have this dirt boy from Kansas at Victory Lane on a road course is big, trust me," Bowyer said. "I saw Jeff Gordon, he's sitting there on the wall, he's won this race many times, he's a champion of this sport and I just beat him. I passed Jeff Gordon, and you have no idea, a young racer from Kansas, you don't forget stuff like that."
Bowyer dominated by leading 71 of the 112 laps. Defending race winner Busch, in an unsponsored car, was all over the bumper of Bowyer's Toyota late and got a final shot at taking the win away when caution flew with four laps remaining.
Only Busch damaged his car with roughly eight laps to go, and he worried the entire caution period whether his Chevrolet was ruined and had no chance of catching Bowyer through the two-lap overtime sprint to the finish.
Bowyer raced side-by-side with Busch at the green flag, then cleared Busch and pulled away for the win.
"Kurt raced me clean, he bumped me and roughed me up, but never did anything to jeopardize either one of us," Bowyer said.
It was a strong day all-around for MWR, which got a fourth-place finish from Vickers, who was back to NASCAR after racing last weekend at Le Mans. Martin Truex Jr. led 15 laps, and was running in the top 10 until a late-race incident with Joey Logano dropped him to 22nd.
Waltrip believes Vickers could have a stronger future with the team.
"Certainly is a possibility to add Brian to our driver lineup with a fourth team, or even have him hang around another year, and if Mark ever gets done driving — which I wouldn't wait around for Mark to quit if I was him," Waltrip said.
"If you think of somebody's attitude that is 180 degrees different, he struggled getting tangled up with folks, and he started the season saying 'I'm not that guy, I know how to race these cars and I'm going to prove it.' He's been amazing for our organization."
Tony Stewart passed Busch on the final lap to claim second, but said it was because Busch's car was struggling.
"Kind of got it by default there to a certain degree. Once we got by there, we just were not close enough in that last lap to get to Clint," Stewart said.
Busch wound up third. He was emotional after — Busch missed Pocono earlier this month because he was suspended by NASCAR for verbally abusing a media member — and said he was thrilled to compete for the win in an underfunded, unsponsored Phoenix Racing car.
"It's an amazing day, when you can do what we did," Busch said. "I'm a little choked up because A: We were in position. B: I was very considerate to Bowyer, who was going for his first win with the new team. And then C: which is most important, I made a mistake, I got into those tires in turn 11."
Busch, who has struggled with his temper on and off the track, saw a silver lining in his strong finish.
"If I can get my head on straight here, and after the race, then I could be able to race every weekend and go for victories," Busch said.
Vickers was fourth for MWR, followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
Greg Biffle was seventh, followed by pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger and Joey Logano.
Most everyone believed the race would be a runaway win for either Ambrose or Gordon, but neither really contended.
Ambrose led the first 11 laps before plummeting through the field, and said the setup on his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford was just off.
"We really missed it," he said. "We missed it bad, and we did good to recover and get a top-10 out of it. We will take it and move on. We got the pole and had a lot of speed; we just missed it for the race.
"We were slow. It was just terrible. We had no speed in the car and we paid the price."
Gordon led one time for 13 laps before running out of gas as he was headed in for a scheduled pit stop.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.