It looks like a two-driver ‘Chase' for the 2012 Sprint Cup championship between five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, the man many consider the next new star in NASCAR's top racing series. Clint Bowyer and Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne the only other drivers with even a glimmer of hope as the Chase for the Cup winds down to the final three deciding races.
Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., had a very good feeling going into last weekend's Chase race at historic Martinsville, and everything was playing out as the Michael Waltrip Racing driver had hoped. Although he had never won at the half-mile, paperclip-shaped track, Bowyer felt that the conditions were right for him to make a great run in the Tums Fast Relief 500 on Sunday.
The native Kansan qualified in the eighth position at Martinsville and, as anticipated, ran strong through most of the race. In fact, next to the ultimate winner, Johnson, Bowyer led the most times and the most laps. Piloting the No. 15 5-Hour Engergy Toyota Camry, Bowyer led four different times for 151 laps, including 112 in succession from lap 238 to 349 of the 500-lap race.
Bowyer was in the lead when he pitted on lap 351 with a little less than 50 laps to go. His car stalled, however, upon exiting the pit area and the loss of valuable time cost his critical track position. When the 15 car returned to the active track, it had fallen all the way back to 18th.
"Man, I thought we had a car capable of winning," Bowyer said in his post-race comments. "We lost track position when they beat us out of the pits there and I never could regain it."
The 33-year-old veteran of eight Sprint Cup seasons actually was able to regain the lead, albeit very briefly, overtaking Kahne as the lead car. It wasn't long thereafter that Johnson took over the lead, a position he held eight times, including starting from the pole, during the race, eventually outrunning Kyle Busch to the checkered flag.
In the end, Bowyer was able to put things in perspective. "It is what it is," he said. "It's a team effort and it's the team that got us here. It was a good day for us, and a lot of fun out there. We led laps and did what we wanted to do. We just came up short from winning."
Bowyer restarted seventh with just five laps to go and managed to move up two more spots in the five-lap green flag finish. Even though he started the day in fourth place in the Chase for the Cup drivers' standings, because Denny Hamlin encountered major electrical problems three-quarters of the way through the race that pushed the No. 11 car back to a 33rd-place finish, Bowyer was able to jump over Hamlin into third place after seven of the 10 Chase races.
He advance by one position in the standings, but he lost ground in the process because Bowyer now trails new Chase leader Johnson by 26 points. Going into Sunday's race, he was 25 behind Keselowski, who dropped to second, despite finishing sixth at Martinsville, after leading in the standings from the very start of the 2012 Chase.
Bowyer has not given up hope that he can still pull off somewhat of a miracle and capture this year's Sprint Cup championship, which would be his first, but he is also all to mindful that his window of opportunity is rapidly closing. To have any realistic chance, he would have to win at least two of the final three races - at Texas, Phoenix and the season-finale at Homestead-Miami - if not all three. And that only assumes that the two drivers ahead of him, Johnson and Keselowski, don't do well in any of the remaining races.
"Anything could happen," Chase points leader Johnson said. "(Keselowski and I) could both wad it up next week (at Texas), and Clint Bowyer is your champion. You never know. You've got to go race the race."
Well, it won't be quite that simple, but the point remains, it's not over till its over. And that's what Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing crew are banking on.
The AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth is next. Let's go racing...
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