RICHMOND, Va. — As the newest member of Michael Waltrip Racing this season, Clint Bowyer had already shown he could win a race.
Saturday night – or rather Sunday morning – he left the impression he could well win the Chase.
After three rain delays and a spin midway through race, Bowyer emerged as the leader in the early morning hours Sunday. He stretched his fuel the final 122 laps and held off Jeff Gordon to win the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
The race was the last used to set the championship field for the 12-driver Chase, which will open next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
Bowyer was already locked in, but the win at Richmond – his second of the season – vaulted him to the sixth seed. He starts the Chase trailing No. 1 seed Denny Hamlin by six points.
“To win this last race before this Chase got off – we had a bad race last weekend. Had a lot of adversity we had to bounce through. Just kind of bummed out as a team as a whole coming into this race,” said Bowyer, who moved this season to MWR from Richard Childress Racing.
“This is a good way to get things bounced back headed into this Chase. You can’t ask for a better race team. MWR, my teammates, everybody that is a part of this – it’s just unbelievable.”
This will be Bowyer’s fourth trip to the Chase, but the first time MWR has sent drivers since the organization’s inception in 2007. Bowyer’s teammate, Martin Truex Jr., enters the Chase as the 10th seed.
Besides Hamlin, Bowyer and Truex, the other drivers locked in by finishing the first 26 races in the Top 10 in points are Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick.
Two drivers make the Chase as wild cards, awarded to the drivers 11th to 20th in points with the most wins. Kasey Kahne claimed the 11th spot with two wins, and Gordon won a tiebreaker with Kyle Busch to take the second wild-card spot.
The battle for the final wild card went down to the wire at Richmond.
Both Gordon and Busch struggled at times, but Busch took a big hit late in the race when he had a loose lug nut on his final green-flag pit stop.
Gordon’s second-place finish combined with Busch’s 16th-place finish gave Gordon a three-point advantage over Busch after the race (both had one win entering the event).
“I felt like I won the race,” said Gordon, who was the fourth of four Hendrick Motorsports teams to claim a Chase berth. “When that was over, they told me I was in the Chase, we made it … I was ecstatic.
“I was going nuts.”
Mark Martin finished third, Stewart was fourth and Kenseth, fifth.
No one was celebrating more than Bowyer and the MWR organization.
It’s been a long road since the fledgling organization debuted in 2007 and was almost immediately hammered by severe NASCAR penalties at Daytona Speedweeks for using unapproved additives to its fuel.
Truex is the longest-serving driver with the organization, having joined in 2010. Bowyer arrived this season as did Martin, who is sharing driving duties in the No. 56 Toyota team with Brian Vickers and team co-owner Michael Waltrip.
“Over the last year, just the addition of Clint, the addition of Brian (Pattie, crew chief), this team, Mark Martin – the job he’s done for us – everybody’s just rallied together,” Waltrip said.
“It’s just a really great working atmosphere. I’m thankful. I’m obviously really happy with having two cars in the Chase. My inspiration for having a team from the beginning was Dale Earnhardt.
“I always wanted to have a team like Dale had. So anytime something goes good, I always think about what all he meant to me. We’re thankful.”