Clint Bowyer's unexpected rise puts him not far from Sprint Cup title

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Tony Stewart's chances to repeat as Sprint Cup champion are up in smoke. Jeff Gordon will remain stuck on four career championships for yet another year. The title hunt is over for Denny Hamlin, and it never really started for either Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been making more news off the track lately than he has on it.

Some of the biggest names in NASCAR have fallen out of championship contention in recent weeks. Yet with only three races to go, there is one driver who continues to lurk in the shadows, prepared to pounce if anything goes wrong with frontrunners Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. A driver who is well known among NASCAR fans, but is rarely mentioned when talk turns to title chances.

That needs to change. Because in his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing, Clint Bowyer is proving that he is indeed one of the best in the sport. His three victories this season are impressive enough, especially for a driver who had only five career wins over his first six seasons combined. But the most important stat -- the championship-worthy stat -- is his 21 top-10 finishes. That ties him with Keselowski for the second-most top-10s this season, behind only Johnson.

That level of consistency often shows up in the point standings more than victories do. And sure enough, Bowyer is currently nestled in third place in the standings, a lengthy 26 points out of first but still close enough to have a legitimate shot at the title should something go wrong with the top two. After Johnson took over the points lead last week, he quickly proclaimed, "Anything can happen. [Keselowski and I] could both wad it up next week [in an accident] and Clint Bowyer is your champion. You never know."

Indeed, you never do; proven by the fact that Bowyer is even being mentioned as a possible champion this year. Before this season, he seemed to fall into that second-tier of drivers who are good but not great. Drivers who run near the front more often than not and make it to Victory Lane on occasion, but simply are not a factor when the championship trophy is in sight.

Bowyer has truly been in contention for the title only once. That was in 2007, his second year in the Sprint Cup Series driving for Richard Childress Racing, when he was in third place in the standings three races into the Chase before fading down the stretch. He finished fifth in the standings in 2008, then failed to make the Chase in two of the next three seasons, finishing a distant 10th in the one year he did qualify.

So Bowyer's resume simply has not been championship caliber before this season. And there was no reason to think that was going to change this year; Bowyer made the switch from RCR to Michael Waltrip Racing, an organization that had struggled with financing over the years and had never even placed a driver in the Chase. If anything, it seemed Bowyer had basically thrown away whatever slim chance he had of being a championship contender.

Sure enough, Bowyer sputtered out of the gate this season, posting only five top-10 finishes in the first dozen races. He showed some slight improvement in June and July, picking up a victory on the road course at Sonoma. Still, when the series left Indianapolis Motor Speedway in late July, Bowyer had finished in the top-10 in only half his starts, and he was in danger of not even making the Chase.

But over the past 13 races, Bowyer has been one of the best drivers on the circuit. Take away the crash-induced 23rd-place finish at Talladega, and Bowyer's stat line from the other 12 races reads two victories (Richmond and Charlotte), five top-fives and 11 top-10s. While several bigger names have faded down the stretch, Bowyer has risen toward the top. It is a development that has surprised quite a few people, including Bowyer himself.

"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 and still in contention for a championship," Bowyer said a week ago. "Our first year together, just to be able to do that with a brand-new sponsor, a brand-new manufacturer. I was almost uncomfortable going to the shop at the beginning of the year because I didn't know one face there. To walk into a new family and to be able to have the success we're having is unbelievable."

It certainly has helped Bowyer that Michael Waltrip Racing as a whole has improved significantly this season, with fellow MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. also qualifying for the Chase. This trend actually began last year, when Waltrip received an increased financial commitment from team co-owner Robert Kauffman; he then went to Toyota Racing Development and said he wanted to become more involved in the preparation and engineering of his team's cars. Waltrip then had to sell Bowyer on the concept that MWR's past performance (two victories and 52 top-10s in 414 starts) was not a true indication of the team's future potential.

"I don't think Clint wanted to come drive for me," Waltrip said in October. "He said, 'Do you think you've got cars I can win with?' I said, 'We don't yet, but we're building them and they're going to be great and you're going to be happy. ... It was a leap of faith by Clint."

It's turned out to be leap that has propelled Bowyer to near the top of the point standings. While it remains unlikely that he will reach the pinnacle this season, there is no doubt that Bowyer is pointed in the right direction. And he is definitely enjoying the ride, especially as he looks at all the smiling faces around him at MWR.

"It's a lot of fun to be able to see them enjoy this," Bowyer said. "I think it's important for them to soak it in and really understand what victory is all about and how hard it is. It's extremely hard to win these races. And to be able to win three of them here in our first year together is huge. It's important to make sure that your guys take the time and soak it in and enjoy it. If you don't, you'll regret it.

"As far as [personal] respect and whatever else, I don't care. That doesn't drive me. Enjoying the moment and being in Victory Lane with this group of guys, that's what drives me. That's so much fun, to see those faces that have been trying so hard over the years to be in Victory Lane. It doesn't get any better than that."

Though if Bowyer and MWR keep improving, things very well might get better. They might even be lifting the Sprint Cup championship trophy.