Deep into the celebration that accompanied his most recent Sprint Cup Series triumph, Clint Bowyer noticed that something was amiss. The affable seventh-year driver for Michael Waltrip Racing had just made an unconventional walk to Victory Lane after burning off the last bit of fuel in his No. 15 Toyota, but now there was a new issue.
"There was a guy, I'll never forget it, he was right down to my left -- red hat, red shirt, and he was in every Victory Lane picture. He's doing the number one, he'd switch hats and finally I said, 'who is this guy?' " Bowyer explained Tuesday during a fan question and answer session at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
After the interloper -- who said he had permission from team owner Michael Waltrip to join the party at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- was found out to be a fraud, he was eventually escorted from the scene, but not before getting into a few more photos. "So he was in most of our team pictures," Bowyer said. "Mysterious man."
The Charlotte gate-crasher isn't the only one getting the "who is this guy?" treatment after Bowyer's third victory of the year catapulted him back into the thick of the Chase for the Sprint Cup title race. It also couldn't come at a better time for Bowyer, who hopes to build on the best season of his career as the Chase postseason hits his home state for the Hollywood Casino 400 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Kansas Speedway.
Bowyer had missed the Chase in two of the previous three seasons when he joined MWR -- a team that had never made NASCAR's playoffs -- to start the 2012 campaign. The pairing has exceeded expectations and then some, crashing the Chase party with three wins and a fourth-place position in the standings, 28 points behind leader Brad Keselowski with five races left in the season.
As momentous as Saturday's victory was for Bowyer in the backyard of most NASCAR teams, a Kansas win would rate just as highly for the Sunflower State native.
"Coming off of the win obviously rolling into your hometown is a lot of fun," Bowyer said. "A lot of confidence, a lot of momentum, everything that comes off of a win, but to be able to do it rolling into home at Kansas is very special."
Bowyer and the rest of the Sprint Cup field should benefit from extra track time on the repaved 1.5-mile track, which replaced its surface and reconfigured its banking after the April 22 STP 400. Teams were scheduled to test the new asphalt Wednesday and Thursday before Friday's practice and qualifying sessions.
Despite that wrinkle, expect the laid-back Bowyer to roll with whatever extra challenge Kansas throws his way. It's also safe to expect a bigger party with more unexpected guests should a popular home-state win unfold.
"It would be big. I'd probably just invite the whole grandstand to come down and be in Victory Lane," Bowyer said. "I mean, one wasn't enough in Charlotte. We need everybody."
Sadler bracing for the unknown
Shortly after adding four points to his Nationwide Series lead, Elliott Sadler had already begun looking ahead. In his post-race remarks after finishing third last Friday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Sadler ticked off the remaining four tracks on the 2012 schedule, but paid special attention to the first speedway on the list.
"Texas, we've already raced there this year. We've already raced at Phoenix, which we were able to win at. Ricky won at Texas, so we know what's going to happen there. Homestead, it's the normal old Homestead that we know a lot about. So I would say Kansas right now is the last wild-card race," Sadler said. ". . . It should be a handful. To me, that's the biggest unknown element that we have left with only four [races] to go."
Sadler will carry a 13-point edge over championship rival Ricky Stenhouse Jr. into Saturday afternoon's Kansas Lottery 300 (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) on the newly paved 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. Top rookie Austin Dillon, Sadler's Richard Childress Racing teammate, remains third, just 29 points off the top.
Sadler has led the points standings after 24 of the 29 races this season, with Stenhouse showing the way following the other five. Even though he hasn't been able to shake Stenhouse's pursuit in the standings, Sadler says the spirit of competition is thrill enough.
"It's fun being competitive every weekend and running for a championship," Sadler said. "If you're competitive, that's what we do. This is what it's all about. I'm definitely cherishing this moment. I cherished it last year, even though we didn't win the championship, it was fun being in that battle, and I'm doing it again this year. This is what racing's all about."
Sprint Cup Series driver Joey Logano, who notched his second straight and Nationwide series-leading eighth win of the season last weekend at Charlotte, is on the entry list this weekend at Kansas. He'll seek a three-peat in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota.
- Clint Bowyer
- Charlotte Motor Speedway
- Michael Waltrip Racing