It's all right to admit if you thought the Chase was down to a three-man race. Just don't expect Clint Bowyer to go along with that idea.
Bowyer, whose phenomenal rise has to rank as one of the top success stories of this season, notched his third victory of 2012 on Saturday night in Charlotte, and he did it using a combination of driving skill and crew-chief savvy that might just put him back into this Chase after all.
Coming into this evening, conventional wisdom held that the Chase was already a three-horse race between Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. And indeed, for most of the night the Big Three in the standings were the Big Three in the race, trading the top three spots back and forth.
But a crucial fuel issue put Keselowski far down in the pack. Some gambling on mileage left Bowyer alone with the other two, more than 25 seconds ahead of fourth place. And since no debris mysteriously/suddenly appeared, no caution flags flew, and Bowyer held off a charging Hamlin for the win.
This doesn't quite put Bowyer into the Chase conversation, as he's still 28 points behind Keselowski. But 28 points is a total you can chip away at over the course of five races. And Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie, by remaining in the mix this late into the season, have shown they know how to hang around and take advantage of opportunities.
"At the end of the day we're a hell of a lot better than we were leaving Talladega," Bowyer said. "To be back in victory lane, new life, new hope going into Kansas, there's a lot of races left."
That, in itself, is something of a miracle. Recall that at this time last year, Bowyer was headed to Michael Waltrip Racing in what was widely, and almost universally, seen as a step down from Richard Childress Racing. Nobody's saying that now. With two drivers in the Chase, more than Childress or Joe Gibbs Racing and the equal of Roush Fenway, Michael Waltrip Racing has firmly established itself as one of NASCAR's elite teams of 2012. And in NASCAR, team success has a way of building on itself. We could be seeing a lot more of MWR in the years to come, and that's something nobody saw coming.
"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?" Bowyer said. "Five races left, and we're still in contention for a championship."
For now, though, it's all about Bowyer. He's got very little margin for error, but he's also racing against guys who have been all but flawless these first five races. Everyone has at least one rocky time out, and if Bowyer can stay steady and take advantage, he could pick off the challengers one by one. Hey, at this point, in this season, would you expect anything different?