My Brain on NASCAR: What a long strange road trip it’s been

It’s kind of funny that not too terribly long ago, people were complaining about the “yawn factor” of road course races, claiming they had no place on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, and now, they are two of the most exciting events of the year.

The Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma featured so many great storylines that we could literally spend the next three weeks talking about them. But NASCAR being what it is, the same is true of every race, so we’ll deal with them in one fell swoop.

Leading off is Clint Bowyer’s victory, his first since moving to Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) at the start of the 2012 season.

I think most people mentally divide NASCAR drivers into two categories – the ones we are passionate about, either positively or negatively, and the ones we don’t pay much attention to one way or the other. I have to confess that for me, Bowyer has always fallen into the second group.

It’s nothing personal. Bowyer is popular around the garage and by all accounts, he is a fun guy to hang out with. He is certainly skilled behind the wheel, with six Cup Series wins and three appearances in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He’s just not a driver who springs immediately to mind when making predictions about who might win a road course race, or any race, for that matter.

But on Sunday, he held off two guys who do spring to mind in those situations, beating defending series champion Tony Stewart and defending race champion Kurt Busch to the checkered flag.

“To have this dirt boy from Kansas at Victory Lane on a road course is big, trust me,” Bowyer said after the race. ”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.”

Speaking of Jeff Gordon …

First of all, I know race car drivers are known to be brash, but I’m not really sure I would go out of my way to rub the four-time champion’s nose in the fact that I had “just beat him.” Gordon is suffering through a less than stellar season. With only 10 races left before the start of the Chase, he is sitting 18th in the driver standings, with no wins.

This is concerning. I was somewhat of a Cathy-come-lately to NASCAR, so I missed out on a lot, but I have seen plenty of wonderful moments in racing, and many of them have included Gordon. He has made the post-season championship field every year except one, but right now it seems there is a real possibility that we could see a Jeff Gordon-free Chase in 2012.

That little breeze you feel when a page is being turned can be kind of sad.

A Kinder, Gentler Kurt Busch?

The 2004 Cup Series champion, whose abusive behavior  literally got him thrown out of his own car for a couple of races this season, fought his way through equipment failure and radio communication problems for a third-place finish at Sonoma. Then, disappointment notwithstanding, he made his way to Victory Lane to congratulate the winner, who appreciated the effort.

“For him to come to Victory Lane spoke volumes about his character,” Bowyer said of Busch. “He’s a champion of the sport; you can’t lose sight of that. I know there have been a lot of negatives around him, but there were a lot of positives today for Kurt Busch.”

We can only hope.

The next race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is schedule is the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night, June 30. Kyle Busch is the defending champion.

Driver standings after Michigan:

1. Matt Kenseth
2. Greg Biffle .
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
4. Jimmie Johnson
5. Tony Stewart
6. Kevin Harvick
7. Clint Bowyer
8. Denny Hamlin
9. Martin Truex Jr.
10. Brad Keselowski

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