CONCORD, N.C. -- Mesmerized beforehand by the high-wire act of the world-famous Nik Wallenda, Clint Bowyer ended up walking a tightrope of his own later during the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
And when all the white-knuckled driving was done, Bowyer was the ringmaster of his own circus during a post-race news conference unlike any other. He earned that right by outlasting and outrunning all others in the fuel-mileage game to claim the spotlight in victory lane.
Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota wasn't the fastest car on the night. But his team, led by crew chief Brian Pattie, ran the smartest race and together they all feasted on the victor's spoils afterward.
Among those: the possibility that Bowyer may have just inserted himself back into the Chase for the Sprint Cup conversation. Bowyer was fifth in the Chase standings entering the night and fourth after it, but he shaved 12 points off his deficit to leader Brad Keselowski -- the big loser in the fuel-mileage bingo who had to settle for 11th place after leading six different times for a race-high total of 139 laps.
With five races left in the Chase, Bowyer is now 28 points out of first, a mere 13 behind Denny Hamlin in third and 21 behind five-time champion Jimmie Johnson in second.
Yet for a while during his eclectic, wide-ranging post-race interview, all Bowyer wanted to talk about was Wallenda, who walked the length of two and a half football fields from the frontstretch grandstands to Victory Lane, high above the track and infield, prior to the race.
"I was pretty impressed with that," a grinning Bowyer said. "I thought that was pretty cool."
Bowyer also thought it was pretty cool that he won at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the first time in his career. In fact, he said it made him feel downright "giddy," and why not? In 13 previous Cup races at Charlotte, Bowyer not only had never won he had finished in the top 10 only four times, and had cracked the top five only twice.
"First and foremost, this is my worst racetrack," Bowyer said. "To be able to come here and compete and have cars capable of qualifying in the top five and racing up front, man, I'm telling you that means a lot to me. I think it speaks volumes to our team, Brian Pattie, everybody that he's assembled around me from the get-go. It makes you almost giddy."
Now he can admit it. He never thought in his wildest dreams that this season would be unfolding like this. In truth, neither did car owner Michael Waltrip, nor Pattie.
A year ago, the Michael Waltrip Racing organization was struggling to say the least. Bowyer was finishing up his final season at Richard Childress Racing, wondering what was going to come next. Pattie lost his job as crew chief for Juan Montoya after 19 races in 2011 and wasn't sure what his next career stop was going to be.
"Twelve months ago, I was sitting in a hammock texting friends of mine at the racetrack when I was at home," Pattie said. "It's come a long way."
Waltrip wanted to sign Bowyer, whose contract was up at RCR and was the most attractive free agent on the NASCAR market, but wasn't sure he could get him.
"I'll be honest. I don't think Clint wanted to come drive for me. But he was like, 'Damn, I guess I got to," Waltrip said.
It's worked out better than any of them could have imagined. Saturday's victory was Bowyer's third of the season.
"Who would have thought in a million years after making this switch and coming over to a new family and everything that was new that we would be in Victory Lane three times and still be in [Chase contention] with five races left?" Bowyer said.
The truth is Bowyer still has much work to do to really stir the Chase conversation. It's not that he's not capable. That much he's already proven. It's just that he'll also need the three guys in front of him to make some uncharacteristic mistakes while he and his team minimizes them or eliminates them altogether.
In some ways, that situation worked to Bowyer's advantage on Saturday. While he could push the fuel envelope at the end because the risk of running out down the stretch was worth the reward of winning, others near the top of the Chase heap really didn't feel like they could.
The one who tried was Keselowski, who paid a dear price when he ran out of gas half a lap early coming to pit road for his next-to-last stop. Then his team further compounded the problem by failing to pack the fuel cell full. And the car stalled in the pit box, costing him valuable seconds.
Meanwhile, Hamlin and Johnson said they ran at less than full speed for the duration of their last two runs in an effort to make certain they saved enough fuel to make it to the end. Bowyer cut it close, too, but thanks to Pattie's savvy direction, he got out and stayed out front for the laps that mattered.
"We're going for trophies. That's the only way you're going to beat the 2, the 48 and the 11," Pattie said of the cars being wheeled by Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin, respectively. "The mid-pack [drivers] who were fourth, fifth and sixth in points were gapped a little bit from the leaders [coming into Saturday's race], so you had to do something special to get back into it. This definitely helps."
As Pattie spokie, Waltrip left the news conference stage to take a phone call from his daughter, who was attending a Homecoming dance. Bowyer alternated jabbering on about how some of the weary-eyed media in the room needed a shot of some product made by his sponsor, 5-Hour Energy, with talking more about Wallenda and darting off-stage to autograph some ballcaps. Obviously he wasn't low on his sponsor's product. He even mentioned that he might as well make walking to Victory Lane his "signature move" because after each of his wins this season, his car has run out of gas before he could complete a celebratory burnout and had to be pushed there.
It was the third time he's done one of these post-race winner's deals this season, and still no one knows what to expect during them. Sort of like the way no one in the Sprint Cup garage is quite sure what's coming from Bowyer and his team over these next five races.
You can bet everyone will be paying close attention from here on out, though.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Clint Bowyer
- Charlotte Motor Speedway