After Sunday's Ford 400, Clint Bowyer said that after the events at Phoenix International Raceway with Jeff Gordon, his focus was on finishing ahead of one of Gordon's Hendrick teammates in the points standings. That teammate was Kasey Kahne, who was two points ahead of Bowyer after Gordon took out Bowyer at Phoenix in retaliation for contact a few laps earlier.
With his second-place finish Sunday, Bowyer stayed plenty ahead of Kahne, and he also passed another Hendrick car in the points standings, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, to finish second overall.
"To be honest with you, I had no idea. I didn't even think I could reach second," Bowyer said. "I was focused on two points behind [Kahne]. That was my goal was we had to somehow beat the 5, and that's no easy task. They've been running well each and every week. Seems like Kasey will have a good day or a good weekend and then we have a good weekend and we never could really separate ourselves throughout the Chase. Seemed like one common denominator separated us for a few weekends and put us right back."
Kahne finished 21st because of a pit road speeding penalty, so given Bowyer's performance, making up those two points was a fairly easy task. But thanks to Johnson's rear gear issues, Bowyer made up 33 points on him. He entered the race 32 behind, taking second place in the standings by a single point in his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing.
"No, I mean, when we made the Chase, my realistic goal was to be in the top 5," Bowyer said. "I thought that was a reachable goal for our race team the way we had been running leading into the Chase. And to be able to exceed that, I mean, we had a shot at it until last week. You just can't ask for more than that out of a brand-new group like that. Just very proud of all their efforts."
However, it's not crazy to think that Bowyer might have had a substantial portion of the NASCAR fan base rooting for his car to run out of gas or suffer a fate similar to Johnson's. Why? Look no further than Carl Edwards.
Edwards finished second to Tony Stewart last year after losing a tiebreaker and finished 15th this year, a drop of 13 spots. He also became the third driver in the Chase era to miss the Chase the following season after finishing second. Since the Chase's inception, a second-place finisher has dropped five or more spots the following season in six of eight seasons. Johnson finishing second would have given many of those Vader-haters a slice of optimism that the "curse" of second-place would now apply to Johnson and that -- *gasp* -- missing the Chase for the first time would be a possibility.
Of course, Johnson is one of those two second-place outliers. After finishing second in 2004 to Kurt Busch, he finished fifth the following season, and would have likely finished higher if it wasn't for a crash at Homestead.
Here are the Chase's second-place finishers and how they performed the next season in parenthesis.
2004: Johnson (5th)
2005: Greg Biffle (13th)
2006: Matt Kenseth (4th)
2007: Gordon (7th)
2008: Edwards (11th)
2009: Mark Martin (13th)
2010: Denny Hamlin (9th)
2011: Edwards (15th)
2012: Bowyer (?)
After moving on from Richard Childress Racing, where he made the Chase in three of his six full-time seasons, Bowyer wasn't widely expected to be within sniffing distance of the title in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing. But MWR was undoubtedly the series' most improved team in 2012, and Bowyer reaped the benefits. He won three times (Sonoma, Richmond and Charlotte), and teammate Martin Truex Jr. also made the Chase for the first time at MWR. If their uptick in performance continues into 2013 with the new Sprint Cup Series car, it'd be hard to see Bowyer not in the thick of the championship hunt next year.