Commentary

Bowyer fuels Chase fire

Updated: October 14, 2012, 2:09 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Clint Bowyer looked up at the wire 100 feet above the surface of Charlotte Motor Speedway, stretched from the front grandstand to a crane next to Victory Lane, as high-wire daredevil Nik Wallenda navigated 750 feet across it during Saturday's prerace show.

"That's insane," Bowyer told me as we stared up together at Wallenda. "I'd never do that."

But in a way, a fuel mileage race is like walking a high wire. You're taking a huge risk and don't know until you get to the very end if you're going to make it.

It's not life or death like walking a high wire. But in Bowyer's case, it is the reason he's alive in the championship hunt.

So Bowyer rolled the dice -- much like he did when he gambled on the move from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip Racing after last season -- and found new life in the Chase.

The victory over Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, the only other drivers who could make it on fuel with one fewer stop than the rest of the field, moved Bowyer within 28 points of leader Brad Keselowski with five races remaining.

[+] EnlargeMichael Waltrip and Clint Bowyer
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDriver Clint Bowyer, left, and team owner Michael Waltrip celebrate Bowyer's Chase win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

That may seem like a large margin, but remember Tony Stewart was 24 points out leaving Charlotte a year ago and won it all.

"It's risky, but you have to be able to do that," Bowyer said of gambling on fuel.

If you're going to join the dance with Keselowski, Johnson (seven points back) and Hamlin (15), you've got to take chances.

Bowyer did both.

"Man, at the end of the day we're a helluva lot better than we were leaving Talladega," said Bowyer, who was collected in the 25-car wreck on the last lap a week ago. "To be back in Victory Lane, a new life, a new hope going to Kansas. There's a lot of racing left."

Yes there is.

And what this race lacked in wrecks, passing and overall excitement as most teams spent the final third of the race in fuel-saving mode, the postrace news conference with Bowyer and team owner Waltrip made up for it.

Bowyer, who has attention deficit disorder according to himself and his boss, was all over the place. He got up in the middle of the news conference to sign a few hats, and when he had enough he got up and left.

Waltrip remained and started talking about how he won the All-Star Race at Charlotte many years ago and reminded he was a two-time Daytona 500 champion. He also took a phone call from his daughter, who was at her high school homecoming dance.

Yes, life was good for the MWR crowd.

For the third time this season, Bowyer won a fuel-mileage race with a Toyota engine package that another Toyota driver wrongly ripped a few weeks ago after losing on fuel mileage at Dover.

For the third time this season, Bowyer had to walk to Victory Lane because his car ran out of gas during the burnout.

"I definitely hope to walk the next five weeks," Bowyer said. "I need exercise after these races. I need all the exercise I can get. It's fun to walk to Victory Lane. That's the best walk you could ever have.

"I'll walk home if it leads to Victory Lane."

Funny thing about this win, though. Nobody considered Bowyer a threat to make it on fuel until the very end. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, who knocked on the window at Bowyer during the postrace news conference, told Johnson after their final stop that only he and Hamlin could make it.

It was almost like Bowyer wasn't there.

Bowyer would like to keep sneaking up on his competition. After all, who would have believed that a first-year team with a new sponsor would be in this position seven months ago?

But trust me, as unfocused as Bowyer appeared after the race, he is focused in the car. Crew chief Brian Pattie helps keep him that way.

When Bowyer started talking about Wallenda and making jokes about how the song "Free Falling" was playing over the public address system after being asked about having to do something special to get back in the hunt, Pattie interrupted.

"Yeah, we're going to go for a trophy for the next five weeks," he said.

Responded Bowyer, "Yes, we're going to focus."

A minor lapse in focus helped put Bowyer in this position.

Brad Keselowski This 2 team, we're not going to put the prevent defense out there. We're going to go at you and try to sack the quarterback every time. Sometimes you're going to miss, and they're going to get a big payoff. We have hit them a lot, that's why we're in the points lead, and we're going to keep after it.

-- Brad Keselowski

Remember what happened on Lap 275. If Keselowski were to lose the championship by seven or so fewer points, that could be the lap that undid what up until now had been a flawless Chase run.

By running out of fuel with the lead trying to stretch one extra lap out of the No. 2 Dodge, the combination of Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe -- who looked like fuel-mileage geniuses two weeks ago at Dover -- opened the door for Bowyer to get in contention.

They opened the door for Hamlin and Johnson to cut into the points lead in a race where they appeared set to lose ground.

As Wolfe said following an 11th-place finish after his driver led a race-high 139 laps, "You win some, you lose some."

Maybe what happened on Lap 275 won't make a difference. Maybe Keselowski wouldn't have been able to go on another terrific fuel run for his third win in the Chase to stretch what was a 14-point lead over Johnson.

But he probably would have finished in the top five, and the way this Chase is shaping up, you have to believe a few points here and there will make a huge difference.

"This 2 team, we're not going to put the prevent defense out there," Keselowski said. "We're going to go at you and try to sack the quarterback every time. Sometimes you're going to miss, and they're going to get a big payoff.

"We have hit them a lot, that's why we're in the points lead, and we're going to keep after it."

Ditto, Wolfe said, in a sign of unity after a costly mistake.

"What got us in this position was being aggressive with our strategy and we're not going to stop doing that," Wolfe said. "Ninety percent of the time we've got the finishes we want."

This time they didn't.

Bowyer did, and he's feeling like he's 100 feet above CMS even though his feet are planted firmly on the ground.

"The win here, it gave us new life," Bowyer said. "New hope."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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