Clint Bowyer (L), Rob Kauffman and Michael Waltrip, walking to victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
A three-man sprint to the NASCAR championship at Homestead?
Hey, don't write off Clint Bowyer quite that fast.
Bowyer's third win of the season -- and it came here Saturday night just as in his other two, at Sonoma and Richmond, in gas mileage battles -- puts him back into contention. He's hanging in just 28 points behind leader Brad Keselowski, whose gas mileage gambit late in the Bank of America 500 went a bit awry.
Keselowski was cruising easily, with by far the fastest car. But he tried to stretch his fuel one lap too far, and instead of a victory he wound up 11th.
Bowyer was downright giddy with the win: "This is my worst track....
"Who would have thought in a million years after making this switch (leaving team owner Richard Childress after six years and joining Michael Waltrip), coming over to a new family -- and everything that was new -- that we would be in victory lane three times.
"Five races left, and we're still in contention for a championship.
"Our first year together, to be able to do that, with a brand new sponsor, a brand new manufacturer....
"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 and Brian Pattie and Michael; other than that, I didn't know anybody."
And Bowyer conceded he was a little worried about the engines.
"I'd heard a lot of rumors about the engines... the engines... the engines. Let me tell you something: in a short amount of time from the beginning of the year until right now, they've slowly and steadily become the best engine program in the sport."
Bowyer was new, and so was Pattie, and so was competition director Scott Miller (also from the Childress camp). And the success Bowyer and his new teammates have had -- particularly compared to the lack of success the team he just left has had -- has been one of this season's top stories.
Waltrip, who suffered mightily in this sport since becoming a team owner in 2007, has been wild about the success. This is not only Bowyer's career best season, it's Waltrip's too.
"This is the third time we've won and the third time we've had to push it to victory lane," Pattie said, pleased with outfoxing his competition like that.
"I stopped and congratulated Denny on a great run," Waltrip said. "And Denny said 'I've got too much gas left. I waited too long to make my run.' I said 'No, you didn't; you did perfect.'"
Behind the scenes, though, Waltrip says Bowyer and Pattie have, well, worked hard to make it work:
"It's a classic Days of Thunder. On Thursday Clint said 'I'm going to run it my way.' Then Brian --, aka Harry Hogg -- said 'Now we're going to run it my way.'
" Clint learned a lot Thursday."
Bowyer wasn't the only 'winner' Saturday night for Waltrip. Teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin also finished top-10.
Waltrip, as is his style, used deadpan humor and bluntness in his post-race recap.
"I'll be honest, I don't think Clint wanted to come drive for me," Waltrip said. "But he's like 'Damn, I guess I've got to.'
"He asked 'Do you think you've got cars I can win with?'
"I said 'We don't yet, but we're building them, and they're going to be great, and you're going to be happy.'
"It was a leap of faith by Clint and a leap of faith by Brian."
Can Bowyer and Pattie and Waltrip really launch a title charge down the stretch?
"Man, we're a hell of a lot better than we were leaving Talladega," Bowyer said.
"Yes. To be back in victory lane, with new life, new hope going into Kansas... there's a lot of races left.
"Kansas, nobody really knows what to expect there. It's a repave.
"You don't know if somebody is going to stub their toe, if somebody is going to struggle if it comes down to fuel mileage.
"All it would have took is for one of those three cars (Keselowski, Hamlin or Johnson) to stretch it out and run out of gas. That opens the door up for everybody."
Pattie agrees: "28 points is achievable over the next five weeks.
"It's a lot better than 40 down -- how we started the weekend.
"We weren't the fastest car tonight, we just had some strategy. It would be nice to win one of these things and actually drive to victory lane."