After four races, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin had seemingly separated themselves in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Not so fast, says Clint Bowyer.
As the sport’s version of a playoff completed the “first half” in its 10-race run, Bowyer and his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team used strategy to outsmart the trio of favorites, winning the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with superior fuel mileage.
Bowyer’s third win of the season moved his team to within 28 points of Keselowski in the championship standings.
“I looked at it last week and going into this week, I still thought if one of those guys (Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin) were to stub a toe, it would really open the door for about eight of us to get right back into the championship hunt,” Bowyer said. “With a win here, it definitely gave us new life and new hope.”
Crew chief Brian Pattie echoed the sentiment, saying that, “Twenty-eight points is achievable over the next five weeks. It’s a lot better than 40, how we started the weekend.
“There’s three guys you’ve got to pass, not only the points. We’ll go to Kansas on Wednesday and test like hell and try to pick up our program even more than we have now because we weren’t the fastest car tonight, we just had (a winning) strategy. It would be nice to win one of these things and actually drive to Victory Lane.”
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin flexed their muscles throughout a tame event— leading a total of 228 of 334 laps—that witnessed five cautions, two of which were for debris.
But on lap 275, Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing team did something it had largely avoided the previous four weeks: It made a mistake.
While attempting to stretch a tank of fuel, the championship leader—who led the most laps in the event (139)—ran out of gas while leading and coasted into the pits.
That opened the door for Bowyer, Johnson and Hamlin. With Keselowski mired in traffic, they went into fuel conservation mode, reasoning that, with one more full green-flag cycle left, everyone would be running on fumes as the race reached its conclusion.
And they were right. The twist, though, was that Bowyer was a forgotten soul, as the teams of Johnson and Hamlin calculated that they were the only two that would have enough in reserve to stretch one final cycle.
“We outfoxed him,” Bowyer said of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus. “Any time you outfox him you know you’ve done a good job, especially at this racetrack.”
The miscalculations were not especially harmful to Johnson and Hamlin, though, as the latter finished second and the former third.
Even Keselowski, who managed an 11th-place showing, did not appear to be distraught. He explained that aggressiveness was what got his team here, and one shouldn’t expect them to back off from that stance:
“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.”
Fair enough. And the next stop for NASCAR’s traveling circus is the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway, Bowyer’s home track. And a place that has seen Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin each score a win in the series’ last three visits.
For those still alive with five races remaining, hope springs eternal.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro