Updated at: 10/14/2012 7:05 PM
By JENNA FRYER
(AP) CONCORD, N.C. - One of these days, Clint Bowyer might have enough gas in his tank to do a celebratory burnout.
Until then, he’s just fine walking to Victory Lane.
Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie stretched a final tank of fuel to the finish for a win at Charlotte Motor Speedway that pushed the Michael Waltrip Racing team back into the championship picture. It was its third win of the season, and Bowyer has run out of gas after taking the checkered flag all three times.
"It’s fun to walk to Victory Lane, that’s the best walk you could ever have," he said after Saturday night’s win. "I think that’s my new trademark. I’ll walk home if it means Victory Lane."
Bowyer didn’t expect to be in this position at this time last year, when talks on a contract extension broke down with Richard Childress Racing.
Neither did Pattie, who was stuck at home unable to work because he had been fired as Juan Pablo Montoya’s crew chief but was still under contract to the race team.
And team owner Waltrip, he wanted them both because they’d be an upgrade to his organization and allow him to expand to a third team. But he wasn’t sure either would even consider joining MWR.
Somehow, it all came together and clicked faster than anyone expected. The cars were fast, the chemistry was good and they were in Victory Lane for the first time in June on the road course at Sonoma. They did it again on the short track at Richmond to end the regular season.
Saturday night’s victory came on the 1.5-mile intermediate Charlotte track and marked that halfway point of the 10-race Chase. It pushed Bowyer up one spot in the Chase standings to fourth, just 28 points behind leader Brad Keselowski as the Sprint Cup Series shifts to Kansas _ Bowyer’s home track.
"That’s probably the biggest thing, to come off this win, going into your hometown," Bowyer said. "It’s just so important to be able to roll in on a positive note. And to be able to win there some day, we’ve gotten close, if we could possibly pull this off again in Kansas _ it would be, that’s my, do you dare say, Daytona 500? But it truly is. That’s the biggest race you can possibly win, in front of your hometown."
It won’t be easy for Bowyer to overcome this deficit and win the championship. Standing in front of him is Keselowski, a two-time winner in the Chase so far, five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who nearly won the 2010 title but fumbled it away to Johnson in the finale.
In 2009, when Pattie led Montoya into the Chase, the crew chief played a game of math to make a run at the title. He chased points and finishes and played it safe, and while it worked for the best season in Montoya’s NASCAR career, it wasn’t enough to win the title.
With Bowyer, and with five races to go, Pattie has a different strategy for catching Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin.
"We’re going for trophies," he said. "That’s the only way you’re going to beat (them). That mid-pack, fourth, fifth, sixth in points, we’re gapped a little bit from the leaders, so you had to do something special to get back into it. This definitely helps."
Maybe it will work for the first championship for driver, crew chief and owner. But if it doesn’t, nobody at MWR should be disappointed.
This was, after all, an organization that nearly folded midway through its 2007 inaugural season. A cheating scandal involving Waltrip at the season-opening Daytona 500 nearly destroyed his career.
Facing bankruptcy and the loss of everything he had built, he was thrown a lifeline by Rob Kauffman, an investment fund manager and racing enthusiast who stepped in late in that season to pump cash into an organization nobody in their right mind should have partnered with. It literally saved MWR, and Kauffman continued to answer the call at every level of Waltrip’s plan to grow the organization into one of NASCAR’s top teams.
"We went to Rob with a plan that cost a lot of money above budgets, a lot of money that I didn’t have," Waltrip said. "We told Rob we really felt like this plan would enable us to improve our cars so our drivers could go win races. And Rob endorsed the plan, said `I want to win, I want to be up front, I want to be a contender.’ It enabled us to build the cars that we have today that Clint is able to drive so wonderfully and Brian is able to make those calls.
"So I think the main thing that happened at MWR was we came up with a plan and Rob said, `I’ll fund that plan.’"
It has worked to perfection with MWR earning its first Chase berths this year with both Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., and on Saturday night, the organization had Bowyer, Truex and Mark Martin in the top 10 _ the third time this season all three of its cars have finished inside the top 10.
And it came on a night when manufacturer Toyota took six spots in the top 10, in a fuel mileage race, a mere two weeks after Kyle Busch blasted the manufacturer for the poor mileage the his engine got at Dover. No problem at Charlotte.
"I’ll just be honest _ at the beginning of the year I heard a lot of things, a lot of rumors about the engines, the engines, the engines," Bowyer said, "let me tell you something, in a short amount of time, from the beginning of the year until right now, they’ve slowly and steadily become the best engine program in the sport."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)