SONOMA -- Amazing things happen when you ask stock car drivers to turn both right and left.
Sunday, the most amazing thing was that they almost never turned into each other. There were no serious wrecks and only two yellow caution flags during the entire 112-lap Toyota/Save Mart 350.
For the record, that's the fewest yellows ever for a NASCAR event on the twisty-twirly Sonoma raceway.
"It felt like a genuine gentleman's road race today," said gentleman Kurt Busch, who finished in third place.
Clint Bowyer, the gentleman winner, went even beyond that.
"I thought it was the best race I've literally ever seen," said Bowyer, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "I thought it was the best race in NASCAR history. I promise."
Hard to say if fans agreed. Contrary to stereotype, the NASCAR crowd doesn't show up entirely to see crashes. But it's possible that some of the estimated 91,000 in attendance -- which comprises Northern California's largest annual single-day spectator sporting event -- hungered for more of the mayhem and skirmishes that characterize the series.
If so, too bad. This was a race where skill and finesse prevailed, though it still involved plenty of smarts and guts. The result was a real plus for the resume of Bowyer, He passed Jeff Gordon on Lap 25, then lost the lead twice and claimed it back twice on a series of pit stops, the last of which on Lap 76 put Bowyer into the lead for good. But he didn't
"Obviously, not having cautions helped that and helped me stay up front," said Bowyer, who had never previously won on a road course and owned only five previous Sprint Cup victories.
Bowyer, in fact, began his career as a grade-school motocross driver in his native Kansas, where there is just one small road course in the entire state -- which he never competed on as a kid, because he was always running his dirt bike.
"Most guys grew up driving go-carts," Bowyer said. "A road race, to me, had double jumps and triple jumps and whoop-de-dos."
Sunday, by comparison, must have been a smooth ride for Bowyer. He started sixth on the grid but found enough space on the tight track to work his way up to second place and then pass Gordon.
After Bowyer took the lead for good, it was a matter of holding off challenges first from Busch and then from Tony Stewart, both former winners at Sonoma.
Busch, in particular, was impressed at how Bowyer handled the pressure.
"I just kept thinking, 'He's a dirt late-model racer from the Midwest -- there's no way he's going to be able to run the road course,' " Busch said. "But he did. He did great."
Bowyer admitted that the lack of yellow flags -- the first one didn't come out until Lap 82 and the other not until Lap 108 -- helped his cause immensely. His car setup was such that he could run more consistently fast between refueling stops while others seemed to become looser and less reliable. With only two cautions and two restarts, Bowyer was able to best utilize his advantage.
Said Joey Logano, who finished 10th: "For a while, it looked like we were going to go green flag the whole race. I was like, 'Holy cow, this is impressive.' "
He could have been talking about Bowyer, as well. Busch's theory about the lack of collisions elsewhere was that a new tire compound provided by Goodyear for the race allowed drivers to keep their cars stuck on the track better. This allowed for more control and more separation. At race's end when the cars came off the track and were rolled to their haulers, many of the battered vehicles still looked as if they had been through a chain-metal carwash. But there were no severe casualties.
Bowyer said the afternoon wasn't as easy as it looked, especially when Busch began closing in with about 20 laps remaining -- and then gave Bowyer's car a little love tap on Lap 97 at the hairpin Turn 11.
"He roughed me up and let me know he was there," Bowyer said of Busch. "But he never did anything to jeopardize either one of us."
Things became even more interesting when Busch banged his car into the protective tire stack at the same hairpin a few laps afterward. It damaged his rear end and made the car hard to handle, sending Stewart into second place and into Bowyer's head.
"I looked in the mirror and the old grizzly himself, Tony, was there," said Bowyer. "I knew it was going to be a tall order. ... You know you're close on fuel, and you know that you have to keep the two champions of this sport behind you, and you know that you have no business leading this damn thing."
He should speak for himself. In the future, if drivers are intelligent, they'll study the video of Sunday's run by Bowyer to see how to attack a road course. The often-volataile Stewart, surprisingly, said he also preferred to dance with finesse instead of bruising on this day.
"Not having the cautions made it fun," Stewart said, "because you could actually race guys one-on-one a lot versus, you know, having to worry about getting those big packs and ... having to worry about whether you're going to get run over or not."
After fending off Stewart, Bowyer was nodding vigorously in agreement. It wasn't a whoop-de-do. But it wasn't bad.
Contact Mark Purdy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5092.