Clint Bowyer understands significance of doing well at Sonoma and how it could impact rest of season

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It’s been a rough start to the 2014 season for Clint Bowyer. After 15 starts, Bowyer has little to show for his efforts: just two top-five and three other top-10 finishes.

Unless things start to turn more positive and productive for the Kansas native, who is currently 14th in the Sprint Cup standings, he realizes that he may not make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, let alone go a second straight season without a win.

But after being second-fastest in the first of two practice sessions Friday at Sonoma Raceway, and then coming back to be the fastest of all in the latter practice, Bowyer may be headed in the right direction – especially at a track where he won at in 2012.

“It is an opportunity, an opportunity for a lot of drivers,” Bowyer said in Friday’s media session at the racetrack. “That’s why it’s a dangerous race. For the Chase and for where we’re at in the points, you’ve got some guys that are back in the points. Guys that you really know you’re not going to be racing for points into the championship, but they could certainly go out and win this race and put themselves into the championship Chase.

“Dangerous race — it really is. You’ve got to weigh out those options as you go because that set of circumstances changes so many times throughout this race, strategy and everything else. You’ve just got to see where you’re at and take it as it comes and try to make the best decisions you can and have good speed in your race car, and by all means win this damn race.”

Having previously won at Sonoma gives Bowyer a leg up on a good chunk of the field in Sunday’s race.

But he’s more than just a one-win wonder. Frankly, the Kansas native has become quite the road course ace at Sonoma: in eight starts he has one win, four other top-five and one other top-10 finishes, meaning he’s only missed the top-10 just twice in his prior tries there.

“There’s always pressure in this sport, it doesn’t matter what race you go back to, and especially a race you’ve had success at lately,” Bowyer said. “Where we’re at right now, we’re in a position that if you go out here and win, it locks us in to the Chase.  The only thing I can do that I can’t afford to do here is get wiped out, crash myself, run off the track, dive-bomb somebody and make a mistake where it really takes you out of contention for a good finish here because I think we’re plenty capable of what we’ve showed to get a good finish. That’s where the focus is.”

It’s funny how drivers have changed their thinking about Sonoma over the years. It used to be that a number of drivers couldn’t get through the race and weekend fast enough, take their mediocre to poor performance and get on the a quick flight home afterward.

But Sonoma has changed dramatically over the last decade. It has become a track where drivers not only have fun at, they now look forward to racing at. One key to that is timing of sorts: Jeff Gordon (five) and Tony Stewart (two) combined to earn seven wins from 1998 through 2006.

But each of the last seven races has been won by a different driver reaching Sonoma’s victory lane for the first time in their Sprint Cup career: Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Bowyer and last year’s winner, Martin Truex Jr.

With that kind of parity, not to mention how drivers and teams can no longer look at road course races as mulligans or throw-away events, drivers have been forced to get better if they want to be competitive.

As a result, Sonoma has earned a number of different nicknames (some unprintable by those who still haven’t been able to figure out the place), but one stands out in particular: a Bristol on steroids.

Given the propensity for beating and banging, Sonoma has become a road course that thinks its one of NASCAR’s best short tracks, so to speak.

And just like at Bristol, drivers at Sonoma get into some heated battles, do a great deal of beating and banging, and tempers rise just as quick as water temps in the radiator.

There’s no such thing as being patient or gentlemanly racing anymore at Sonoma, and Bowyer will be the first to admit that.

“That’s the one thing that you can guarantee yourself, is whoever is behind you at the end of the race will not be patient,” Bowyer said. “Go out there and set your car up to not put yourself in those situations. Be good off of (turn) 10 to where they can’t dive-bomb you into 11. Be good down the hill, up on top of the hill to where they can’t dive-bomb you getting into 7. Those are things that you’ve got to be able to take care of business and set yourself up for. And if you’re not good off of those corners you’re going to be battling that there in your mirror all day long.”

One thing in Bowyer’s favor – but also in teammate Brian Vickers’ favor, as well – is that MWR drivers have won the last two races at Sonoma: Bowyer in 2012, Truex last season (before moving to Furniture Row Racing this season).

“I wasn’t surprised that Martin won that race,” Bowyer said. “Obviously we had the same setup in and same setup that won (the year before).”

But things are totally different coming into this Sunday’s race.

“Things evolve so much with this new rule package that setup won’t even qualify for this weekend’s race,” Bowyer said. “The very setup that won the last two races just won’t — it won’t compete.

“So, I do dig that about this sport. You have to be able to keep up with the times and keep pushing forward and figuring out ways to keep forward driving in the cars and then keep turning it. Just have fun.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.