When Clint Bowyer moved from the powerhouse Richard Childress Racing team to Michael Waltrip Racing for 2012, few viewed it as a step up.
After all, since it started racing full time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2007 until the end of the 2011 campaign, MWR posted just two race victories and 17 top-five finishes, while in the same period RCR won 17 races and earned a whopping 101 top fives.
RCR consistently contended for championships; in its infancy MWR fought just to make it into the races some weeks.
And yet, when the 2012 season wrapped up at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday night, Bowyer ended the year second in points, with more race victories (3) and top-five finishes (10) than all three RCR drivers combined.
Bowyer’s runner-up finish in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead vaulted him past Jimmie Johnson into second in points, the best finish of his career and his third finish in the top five in points.
The result was so good it shocked Bowyer.
“To be honest with you, I had no idea,” Bowyer said when told after the race that he finished second in points on the season. “I didn't even think I could reach second.”
For Bowyer, crew chief Brian Pattie and the rest of the essentially all-new team at MWR, the year went far beyond even the most optimistic expectations.
“When we made the Chase, my realistic goal was to be in the top five,” Bowyer said. “I thought that was a reachable goal for our race team the way we had been running leading into the Chase. And to be able to exceed that, I mean, we had a shot at it (the championship) until last week. You just can't ask for more than that out of a brand new group like that. Just very proud of all their efforts.”
Bowyer and MWR had a great season, without question. The challenge next year will be to avoid the runner-up slump. In each of the first eight years of the Chase, the driver who finished second in points had a worse year — in some cases significantly worse — the following season.
• 2004 runner-up Jimmie Johnson finished fifth in points in 2005.
• 2005 runner-up Greg Biffle finished 13th in 2006.
• 2006 runner-up Matt Kenseth finished fourth in 2007.
• 2007 runner-up Jeff Gordon finished seventh in 2008.
• 2008 runner-up Carl Edwards finished 11th in 2009.
• 2009 runner-up Mark Martin finished 13th in 2010.
• 2010 runner-up Denny Hamlin finished ninth in 2011.
• 2011 runner-up Edwards finished 15th in 2012.
But that’s something for Bowyer to worry about next year.
For now, he’s intent on enjoying a fantastic run this season.
“Just a great year, super excited about how far we've come in a short amount of time,” Bowyer said. “My first year with MWR with this 5 hour Energy Toyota. Just want to say thank you to Brian Pattie, everybody on the No. 15 5 hour Energy Toyota. They've done a great job. We've learned a lot about each other, and I think we're going to be even better next year.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.