It was a big gamble, but Clint Bowyer needed something big to happen to provide a boost to his NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship chances with just five races remaining in the 2012 Chase for the Cup.
Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., led just three times for 29 laps Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but 25 of those 29 were the final laps as the driver of the No, 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota held off Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson to win his third Sprint Cup race this season and first in 14 starts at Charlotte's 1.5-mile intermediate race track. It was Bowyer's eighth career victory and also marked his first Sprint Cup win over an intermediate distance.
The native Kansan, who is in his first year driving for Michael Waltrip Racing after six years with Richard Childress Racing, stayed out on track after pitting for the final time on lap 278 of the 334-lap race, hoping that he could conserve enough fuel to run to the end, something that Chase points leader Brad Keselowski could not do as the No, 2 Miller Lite Dodge ran out of fuel before his next-to-last pit stop, a critical mistake that dropped him back to a finish of 11th despite leading the most laps (139).
Bowyer was able to trim 12 points off of Keselowski's lead in the Chase standings and move up a spot into fourth place, and now trails the leader by 28 points as the scene this weekend shifts to Kansas Speedway and the Hollywood Casino 400 on Sunday.
"It makes you almost giddy," Bowyer said about his race experience this season with Michael Waltrip. "It's so much fun to come to the race track knowing that you've got cars that are capable of getting the job done. Who would have thought in a million years, after making the switch and coming over to a new family, and everything that was new, that we'd be in Victory Lane three times."
Bowyer said his win on Sunday was special for many reasons, not the least of which was because he considers Charlotte Motor Speedway, which is the home track for more than half of the Sprint Cup Series teams, his least favorite track. Now he gets to follow that up with a stop at his favorite track, Kansas Speedway.
"The biggest thing is to come off of this win, going into your hometown, your family and friends, everybody that goes there," Bowyer said about his return to his native state this week. "It's just so important to be able to roll in on a positive note. And if we could possibly pull this off again in Kansas, it would be, dare I say, my Daytona 500, but it truly is."
Charlotte was the third time this season that the No. 15 car has won and barely had enough fuel to finish the race. In all three wins - at Sonoma, at Richmond and now at Charlotte - Bowyer hasn't had fuel left in the tank with which to do a post-race victory burnout. Because of that he has had to walk to Victory Lane, but he doesn't much mind it.
"It's fun to walk to victory lane," Bowyer said. "Let me tell you, that's the best walk you could ever have. I think that's my new trademark. I'll walk home if it means Victory Lane."
Bowyer feels the most comfortable and confident when he is racing virtually in his backyard at Kansas Speedway, but even so, he hasn't had the kind of performance he would have liked in his previous starts there. His best finish in eight previous Sprint Cup races at Kansas is second place in 2007.
The highest Sprint Cup finish in a season for Kansas' favorite son of NASCAR was third place in 2007 and an eighth-place finish in 2008.
"Realistically, we're still in the thing," Bowyer said in his post-race comments at Charlotte. "We've just got to keep doing what we're doing. Talladega (where Bowyer was one of 25 drivers involved in a final lap multiple-car crash and ended up 23rd) was a huge setback, but what a great way to bounce back in the right direction."
Here are some other highlights from this season's fifth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup:
- Clint Bowyer's last Sprint Cup race victory was at Richmond on Sept. 12.
- Bowyer's third win of 2012 makes him one of five NASCAR drivers with three or more Sprint Cup victories this year.
- The win at Charlotte was only the second all-time for Toyota at that race track, but it was the 10th time in 2012 that Toyota has claimed victory.
- Kyle Bush, who has xx wins for Joe Gibbs Racing this season in a Toyota, has finished in the top-10 in 10 of the last 11 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he has yet to win a race there.
- Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson:finished third at Charlotte, his 16th top-five finish in 2012, the most of all drivers. It was also his fourth top-five in the five Chase races this season.
- Regan Smith drove the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who sat out the Charlotte race after suffering a concussion a week ago at Talladega.
Follow news about NASCAR all season long, including specific commentary and analysis on local drivers Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer, at SB Nation Kansas City.