By JEFF WOLFE
Clint Bowyer doesn’t care how he gets to Victory Lane, even if it means going by foot rather than car.
Bowyer won the third time this season in a fuel-mileage saving effort to take Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was Bowyer’s eighth career win and significantly helped his chances in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.
Bowyer had just enough fuel left as he ran out doing the traditional victory burnout. A driver familiar with doing those burnouts this season is Chase leader Brad Keselowski. It looked like he would get a chance to do another one, but he stayed out one lap too long on a green flag run and ran out of gas and ended up with an 11th-place finish.
“Yes, I definitely hope to walk the next five weeks for sure,” Bowyer said, referring to the final five races of the season. “I need exercise after these races. I need all the exercise I can get. It’s fun to walk to Victory Lane. Let me tell you, that’s the best walk you could ever have. I think that’s my new trademark. I’ll walk home if it means Victory Lane.”
While Bowyer won for the first time on a 1.5-mile oval, Keselowski was in command midway through the 334-lap, 501-mile race. But the driver of the No. 2 Dodge ran out of gas while leading with 58 laps to go.
That opened the door for Bowyer, not only to win the race, but to put himself back into legitimate contention for the title as he is 28 points back of Keselowski.
“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’m telling you, I wouldn’t have — 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.”
But Bowyer didn’t start saving fuel just at the end of the race, it began before that.
“Truly I think the run that won us the race wasn’t the last one, “ said Bowyer, who also won with fuel-mileage runs at Sonoma and in the fall race at Richmond. “It was the run before that, the next to last run, where Brian went out and it was a gusty call to go out and stretch it as long as possible on the last run, and if we would have pitted one lap earlier I think we would have ran out of gas.”
Keselowski was left wishing he had pitted one lap earlier when he ran out of gas on the backstretch.
“Yeah, it’s like playing blackjack,” Keselowski said. “Sometimes you’re going to get a good deal but you’re not going to win ‘em all. You know that. You hope that you’re sitting there with 13 and not have a lot of chips in the pile. We didn’t. We didn’t lose too much.”
Keselowski did lose 12 spots by the time he was done coasting back to the pits and needing a 22-second pit stop to get going again after the car needed to be restarted. He led a race-high 139 laps, but saw chief contenders Denny Hamlin and Johnson finish second and third. Johnson is now second in the points, seven back and Hamlin is third, 15 back.
Hamlin felt he could have challenged Bowyer, but he too was in fuel saving mode.
“You’re just running the race backwards basically,” Hamlin said. “You’re just seeing how slow you can go and maintain your track position. It’s just the way these cautions are falling. I think this one was a debris caution, but it was like right where it puts everyone in kind of a weird window.
“It’s tough because I’m sitting there thinking, I can go by this 15 (Bowyer) or catch him just about any time I want. As a race car driver, anyone can really save gas and be efficient with it. It’s just a matter of how close is the guy behind you and whether he’s going to pass you.”
Johnson said he wasn’t surprised to see Keselowski try to play the fuel game close, as that team has been successful at it this year. But he wasn’t rejoicing too much when saw the No. 2 slow down after running out of gas.
“I don’t know, I’ve been doing this long enough, too, when you see something happen, in your mind you’re like there’s an opportunity and before you know it happens to you,” Johnson said. “I still had a few laps to go. I wasn’t really having bad thoughts or too excited seeing him run out because I didn’t want to run out myself.”
Following Bowyer, Hamlin and Johnson in the top-10 were Greg Biffle in fourth, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. in front of an estimated crowd of 100,000.
Biffle, who started on the pole, also contended for much of the night as he led 71 laps. But he needed a late stop for fuel for his No. 16 Ford.
“It’s amazing those guys can run that far on a tank of gas,” Biffle said. “It’s just unbelievable, but we had a really fast car. We finished fourth here in the spring in the 600, but I just want to win one of these races. We had the fastest car at the end, but couldn’t make it on fuel.”
There were five cautions for 23 laps, with the final one coming on lap 224. After pit stops, the restart came on lap 228, meaning teams had 106 laps to try and make it with one more stop for fuel.
The next stop in the 10-race Chase for the Championship is Bowyer’s home track, Kansas, for a 2 p.m. start Sunday on ESPN.
“That’s probably the biggest thing is to come off this win, going into your hometown, the family and friends, everybody that goes there, it’s just so important to be able to roll in on a positive note,” Bowyer said. “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 is in front of your hometown.”