Bowyer flexing muscle in Chase now

When the Sprint Cup season began, did anyone really believe that Michael Waltrip Racing had a shot at the title?

After all, wasn’t this going to be a rebuilding year for MWR? With the exception of two wins in its first five NASCAR Sprint Cup seasons, the organization barely earned a mention. And while Scott Miller arrived last fall, wouldn’t the new competition director need time to learn the existing systems and establish new ones?

Prior to the season, questions arose. How long would it take Clint Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie to get up to speed? Pattie had sat idle since July 2011 — except for dealing with his wife’s honey-do list. And Bowyer never had raced at the Sprint Cup level with anyone other than Richard Childress Racing.

Yet unbeknownst to outsiders, Waltrip already had promised his existing driver Martin Truex Jr. the previous July that he was intent on turning the operation around.

Waltrip’s partner Rob Kauffman, co-founder of Fortress Investment Group as well as a gentleman racer and car enthusiast, reaffirmed his commitment to the company. And with an owner as engaging as Waltrip, existing sponsors remained eager to continue their support while potential benefactors were intrigued.

Perhaps one of the greatest catalysts behind the scenes was Toyota Racing Development. With Red Bull Racing’s departure, TRD could concentrate its resources on just two programs — MWR and Joe Gibbs Racing. Inevitably, the two operations have adopted a one-team concept which has served each well.

And for the first time since Toyota entered Sprint Cup competition, the manufacturer placed three of its drivers into the Chase for the Sprint Cup — and it almost had four. Now, halfway through NASCAR’s playoffs, Toyota has two drivers solidly in the mix — Bowyer and Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin has been in the title mix before. After a demoralizing attempt in 2010, crew chief Darian Grubb has joined the team, reinvigorated his career and worked on rebuilding the driver’s confidence this season. Hamlin is tied with points leader Brad Keselowski with a series-best five wins. He’s third in the points standings. He trails Keselowski by 15 points and is eight points behind second-place Jimmie Johnson.

Hamlin holds a 13-point advantage over fourth-place Bowyer. But Bowyer, 33, has tremendous momentum after his career-high third win of the season Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Pattie knows it won’t be easy to surpass the competitors ahead of the No. 15 team, but he and his team are not giving up.

“Twenty-eight points is achievable over the next five weeks,” Pattie said Saturday. “It’s a lot better than 40, (which is) how we started the weekend. I don’t know, it’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of help, and we’re still fourth in points.

“There’s three guys you’ve got to pass, not only (making up) the points. We’ll go to Kansas on Wednesday and test like hell and try to pick up our program even more than we have now because we weren’t the fastest car (at Charlotte), we just had some strategy.”

And there’s no doubt that Pattie will be perfecting that strategy for the next five races. Who knows, maybe this is Bowyer’s time to shine. Even the driver is starting to believe.

“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. “And still — how many races, five races left? Yeah, I’ve been paying a lot of attention. Five races left and we’re still in contention for a championship.”

Here are 10 other topics to ponder over the next few weeks:

1. On the horizon

NASCAR is laying out its marketing plans to the teams on Monday. The 2013 campaign is expected to focus on the new car, the new car and, yes, the new car. Hopefully, the reports from this week’s test at Kansas Speedway will be far better than the intelligence that leaked out of the Texas shakedown. The teams that tested there were having difficulty with the aerodynamics of the new car and racing one another. Of course, engineers are hopeful that running in a bigger pack this week will offer more definitive data.

2. Calling all cars

Now that Softbank has agreed to acquire 70 percent of Sprint Nextel, what does that mean for the sponsorship of NASCAR’s top tour? While it was announced in December that Sprint would support the Cup through 2016, it’s uncertain how the deal with the Japanese wireless carrier will affect the sponsorship moving forward.

3. Not a gas, gas, gas

It appears that Sprint Cup competitors are frustrated that so many races this season have come down to fuel-mileage decisions. The good news, however, it that there are just three intermediate-track events remaining on the schedule. And certainly, the repave at Kansas Speedway will offer something fresh to discuss. But in the offseason, wouldn’t it be nice to talk about racers going all out without the emphasis being placed on which driver was the most savvy about letting off the gas?

4. Petty party

An announcement regarding Richard Petty Motorsports’ continued partnership with Ford Racing is expected sometime this week. Principals also appear close to inking a deal to retain Marcos Ambrose, who drives the organization’s No. 9 entry this season. For now, the No. 43 seat is not locked in for 2013.

5. Giving back

Several single-team owners appear troubled about the distribution of wealth not only at the top of the food chain but the money the start-and-park crews are earning for feeble efforts at racing. Will the sanctioning body listen to these concerns or will the teams that are attempting to run full races inevitably fall off into part-time status?

6. Wide open

Greg Biffle caught our attention Saturday night when he made a sweeping move on the outside in the Bank of America 500 to take the lead on Lap 173. Biffle led 71 laps — second only to Brad Keselowski. He was the first driver forced to pit for fuel but still salvaged a fourth-place finish. “It’s (expletive) crazy,” Biffle told the team at the finish. “Just unbelievable. We’ll just keep digging.” Biffle is sixth in the standings after a loose tire at Dover dashed whatever title hopes he had. Still, we commend him for staying up on the wheel despite battling a 43-point deficit.

7. Getting to know you

Kurt Busch struggled in his first outing with Furniture Row Racing on Saturday. Handling issues relegated the No. 78 Chevrolet to 21st. Still, with the testing the team has planned for the remainder of the season and six races to get acquainted, the crew should have any communication glitches worked out in plenty of time for Speedweeks.

8. Second chances

It was unfortunate that Regan Smith lasted just 61 laps before his engine failed on Saturday night. Smith was running in the top 10 filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports before the car began smoking. The good news for Smith is he’ll have another opportunity this weekend — which also opens the door for AJ Allmendinger to race again for Phoenix Racing. It will be interesting to see how the two drivers adjust after first-week issues.

9. Head games

It’s the time of the year when teams do their best to raise the ire of fellow competitors. One of the best distractions of the season comes from the No. 2 Penske Racing squad, which loves to crank the stereo in the garage when Jimmie Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus comes by — particularly with rap tunes. While this might not be as creative as Todd Parrott hanging pictures of a chubby Ray Evernham back in the Rainbow Warrior days, it’s certainly worth a mention.

10. How’s that working for you?

A year ago, crew chief Brian Pattie was on sabbatical from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. His driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, insisted on a change in leadership. Pattie stayed busy. He worked on home improvement projects and sent lovely texts of a new outdoor fireplace. He played golf. And most important, he spent time with his family. Fast forward to Saturday night. Pattie celebrated his third win of the season. “It’s really fun to show up at work on Mondays and be respected and glad you’re here, and I feel the same way,” Pattie said. Montoya, who is 22nd in the points standings (his worst effort since his sophomore season in 2008), finished 19th in Charlotte. Enough said.