CONCORD, N.C. – Gas-mileage races are routinely boring and I’m sure many will say the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was just that.
Rest assured Clint Bowyer wasn’t bored.
Bowyer stretched his fuel just enough to hold off Denny Hamlin and win the Charlotte race.
It was Bowyer’s third win of the season, the most he has won in any year. His previous best was two in 2010 that came during his six-year tenure with Richard Childress Racing.
In 2012, Bowyer has been victorious on three different types of tracks. He won on the road course in Sonoma and on a short track in Richmond. His Charlotte victory was his first on a 1.5-mile track.
Perhaps more important is the fact that Bowyer is now deep into the hunt for the championship. He moved from fifth to fourth in the point standings and from 40 to 28 points behind leader Brad Keselowski.
“Realistically, we’re still in the thing,” Bowyer said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing. Talladega was a huge setback (Bowyer finished 23rd following a last-lap accident), but what a great way to bounce back and get pointed in the right direction.”
The Bank of America 500 was the fifth of 10 races in the Chase. Next up is Kansas Speedway, which delights Bowyer, a native of Emporia, Kan.
“Going home next week – that’s going to be a lot of fun. Who knows what’s going to hold with Kansas? With the repave and everything, I think it’s going to be maybe another wild card race for all of us in the Chase.”
Certainly it will bear close scrutiny as Kansas may play a pivotal role in what is becoming a close contest.
Keselowski led 139 laps at Charlotte, more than any other driver. However, his bid to win his third race in the Chase fell short and he wound up 11th, one lap down.
“We didn’t lose too much,” said Keselowski, who fell short on mileage. “We got 11th out of the day where everything kind of fell against us from cautions at the beginning to lack of ‘em at the end.
“We still put out a respectable effort. Good day, led a bunch of laps, which helps for not getting in the top 10.”
Keselowski finished out of the top 10 for the first time in the Chase. However, he remains the point leader, a position he has now held for three weeks.
His lead has shrunk. Jimmie Johnson, who is one of only three drivers to win at Charlotte six times, remains second in points but is now just seven out – down from 14 a week ago.
Johnson finished third at Charlotte, one spot behind Denny Hamlin. Hamlin remains third in points but is now only 15 behind Keselowski.
For the past few weeks many considered Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin to be the only three contenders for the championship.
But now Bowyer has made his presence known. Kasey Kahne, who finished eighth at Charlotte, is in the mix as he’s fifth in points, 35 in back of Keselowski.
“I did a good job saving fuel,” said Johnson who, like Hamlin, opted to preserve fuel rather than press to catch Bowyer. “We started saving double the distance, so I knew we were going to be fine. We were just being really cautious.
“We didn’t want to go up there and chase the No. 11 (Hamlin), and get ourselves in trouble. We’re getting a lot better at this fuel mileage racing. It is a tough thing to do.
“We’re still not the best car out there at it, but we’re making it work week-in and week-out. It’s part of the game right now for whatever reason.”
Hamlin also admitted that giving chase to Bowyer was simply not part of his strategy.
“You’re just running the race backwards, basically,” he said. “You’re just seeing how slow you can go and maintain your track position.
“But it’s tough because I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I can go by this 15 (Bowyer) or catch him just about any time I want.’
“But Darian (Grubb, crew chief) is screaming at me to back it off.”
Although Bowyer’s fuel held out, he cut it close. There wasn’t enough gas in his tank to do a post-race burnout.
“We’ve been working on fuel mileage and it paid off,” said Bowyer. “I couldn’t do a burnout. The thing didn’t have enough fuel in it to do a burnout.
“Hell, I don’t care. I’ll tell you it’s a lot more fun handing that trophy over to me – that’s what it’s all about.”
Bowyer’s victory highlighted the resurgence of Michael Waltrip Racing, which Bowyer joined this year.
All three MWR drivers finished among the top 10 at Charlotte. Mark Martin, who competes on a limited schedule, was sixth while Martin Truex Jr. finished 10th and moved from eighth to seventh in the Chase.
“Five races left and we’re still in contention for a championship,” Bowyer said. “I’m telling you the truth I was almost uncomfortable going to the shop at the beginning of the year because I didn’t know one face there.
“I knew Ty Norris (general manager) and Brian Pattie (crew chief) and Michael. He was there sometimes and if I could catch him when he was there I could talk, but other than that I didn’t know anybody there.
“To walk into a new family and to be able to have the success we’re having, well, I’m just proud of everything and proud of the engineers and everybody that’s been a part of it.”