CONCORD — Clint Bowyer is quickly becoming as frequently entertaining on the track as he is off of it.
The continuing trend has the potential to make the last five races of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup a title run to remember.
The gregarious, outspoken and fun-loving Bowyer used a clever pit strategy to stretch his fuel the final 56 laps and hold off Denny Hamlin for the win in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It was Bowyer’s third win of the season, and for the third time he tried to do a victory burnout after taking the checkered flag to no avail.
He’s run out of gas in the process each time this season.
That was the only damper on evening for Bowyer, who has now won more races this season than any other in his career in just his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing.
“To come here and have cars capable of qualifying in the top-five, and race up front, I mean, I tell you that means a lot to me,” Bowyer said. “I think it speaks volumes about our team, Brian Pattie (crew chief) and everybody he has assembled around him.
“It makes me almost giddy. It’s so much fun to come to the race track knowing you have got cars that are capable of getting the job done. We’re still in contention for the championship.”
That he is.
The win moved Bowyer into fourth in the series standings, 28 points behind leader Brad Keselowski, who had an off night and ran out of fuel during a green-flag pit stop late in the race.
Last season’s champion, Tony Stewart, was 24 points out of the lead after the Charlotte race one year ago.
Obviously, a first Cup championship for MWR is still a very real possibility.
“We’re still in the thing. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing. Talladega was a huge setback, but what a great way to bounce back and get pointed in the right direction,” Bowyer said.
“Going home next week (to Kansas) – that’s going to be a lot of fun. Who knows what’s going to hold with Kansas with the repave and everything.
“I think it’s going to be maybe another wild card race for all of us in the Chase.”
And it may well mean another wild celebration for Bowyer and his No. 15 Toyota team.
Unable to drive his car to Victory Lane, Bowyer’s team helped push it there after the race as Bowyer and team owner Michael Waltrip walked hand in hand to join them there.
In the media center after the race, Bowyer was his typical, excited self. He frequently asked if the question-and-answer session was done yet.
At one point, Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, knocked on the media center window and gave Bowyer and company a thumbs up sign.
Bowyer pulled back from the table and yelped, “Yes! That’s Chad Knaus! Anytime you outfox that guy you’ve done something.”
While Bowyer has raced his way back into contention, the three drivers who appeared ready to break away from the rest of the championship field – Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin – still sit stop the standings.
Johnson finished third in the race and trails Keselowski by seven points. Hamlin is 15 points behind the leader.
“I think that we see three very equal teams and cars, and teams and cars that are showing up at the race track ready to go each week,” Johnson said. “This has been a lot of fun.
“I think we’re probably at the halfway point now, to have us three this tight, the good, hard competitive racing, the respect for one another – I’ve had a lot of fun over these five races, and I know the next five will be great, too.”
Pole-winner Greg Biffle finished fourth and Kyle Busch was fifth.
Mark Martin was sixth and Martin Truex Jr. was 10th as all three MWR teams finished in the Top 10.
“I think a significant part of this victory is not only did the Toyota engine run with as much power as we needed to win with, we got the fuel mileage we needed to win with,” Waltrip said.
“We had just enough gas to do one of the most amazing starts to a burnout I ever saw.”