The fastest car didn’t win the Bank of America 500 on Saturday night.
For Clint Bowyer, "racing" had very little to do with his first career intermediate track victory and his eighth career NASCAR Sprint Cup win.
With savvy calculations by crew chief Brian Pattie and tremendous patience, Bowyer was able to stretch out his fuel mileage over the final 56 laps to win at Charlotte Motor Speedway – traditionally one of his most challenging tracks on the circuit.
“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,” Bowyer said. “I think it speaks volumes to our team, Brian Pattie, everybody that he’s assembled around me from the get-go.
“It’s truly — it makes you almost giddy. It’s so much fun to come to the racetrack knowing you’ve got cars that are capable of getting the job done, you’ve just got to figure out how to make it work.”
On Saturday, Bowyer, 33, discovered the secret to finding the most economical way around the track was to actually slow down – a practice totally counterintuitive to racers. Although Bowyer qualified fourth, Pattie realized his driver had a tendency “to overdrive the corners.”
Forcing Bowyer to let up off the gas offered him a better line around the track.
“Saving fuel really helps me because I back the corner up and the car rotates and it’s kind of like slapping you in the face, saying, ‘Oh, this is how it’s supposed to feel,’” Bowyer said. “But I don’t think I would have won the race had I not moved up and tried to figure out that outside line.
“A couple times Jimmie (Johnson) was running me down, and I was like, ‘I’m going to go up here, and back the corner up and try to make the arc of the radius as big as possible, starting backing the corner up to get the thing to turn,’ and next thing you know doing so you’re going faster and saving gas.”
While Bowyer was certainly excited with the outcome – and finally ran out of fuel before his first celebratory burn-out – that wasn’t the case for top Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders Denny Hamlin and Johnson, who finished second and third, respectively. While the three are separated by just 21 points – and none of them were forced to refuel in the closing laps – Johnson and Hamlin appeared discouraged by not being able to race for the win.
When Johnson was asked about his performance he replied, “We ran a bunch of circles and we’re done.” Hamlin described the fuel-conservation event as “just running a race backwards,” referring to the necessity of slowing down as the race progressed.
"It’s a tough way to race for sure,” Johnson said. “But I’m happy that as a group and a team, we’ve figured out how to get better at fuel-mileage racing. It’s something that we didn’t have in our repertoire for a lot of years. So, I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made; that I’ve made in the car.
“My driving style just eats up fuel. Making good changes, and playing the game the way it needs to be played right now, and closed in a little bit on that No. 2 car (of points leader Brad Keselowski)."
Under the direction of Pattie and the revamped No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team, Bowyer achieved a career-best third season win. The team vaulted to fourth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and slashed 12 points from Keselowski’s points lead after the No. 2 Dodge ran out of fuel coming off of Turn 4 while attempting to stretch his own mileage with 25 laps remaining in the race and finished 11th. As progressive as the Penske Racing organization has been with calculating fuel mileage over the last few years, many of Keselowski’s peers were surprised at the course of events.
“That was kind of the worst-case scenario,” said Keselowski, who led a race-high 139 of 334 laps. “That’s part of the breaks but we still minimized the damage the best we could.”
Bowyer, Hamlin and Johnson were ready to capitalize on Keselowski’s mistake – and they did. Now Bowyer has turned the Chase into a four-man race. And with the Sprint Cup tour headed to the Kansan’s home track next week, Bowyer has even more incentive to shine.
"Realistically, we’re still in the thing,” Bowyer said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing. (Crashing at) Talladega was a huge setback, but what a great way to bounce back and get pointed in the right direction.
“Going home next week — that’s going to be a lot of fun. Who knows what’s going to (happen) with Kansas. The repave and everything, I think it’s going to be maybe another wild-card race for all of us in the Chase."
But if Bowyer plays his cards right, he could be contending for his first Sprint Cup.
2: Engine failures by Roush Yates Ford after the race and two failures before the race by Earnhardt Childress engines.
6: Cars on the lead lap at the finish of the Bank of America 500.
7: Points shaved off Brad Keselowski’s lead by third-place Jimmie Johnson.
When Denny Hamlin was asked about Brad Keselowski running out of fuel he replied, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”