For Clint Bowyer, Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway was much more than just another race.
Sure, there was a Chase berth on the line, but Bowyer knew it was an opportunity to reward all of the employees at Michael Waltrip Racing. With the team shutting down at the end of the season, Bowyer took to Twitter prior to the race to say the more than 200 MWR employees "deserve one last chance" to compete for the title.
Starting 26th on the field, Bowyer had his work cut out from the start of the race. However, the driver of the No. 15 Toyota kept his composure and worked his way forward. While he had nothing for race winner Matt Kenseth, Bowyer earned his 11th top-10 finish of the season.
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Bowyer's 10th-place run was enough to secure a Chase berth, as he even leapfrogged Paul Menard to end up 15th among the 16 Chase drivers.
With so many unknowns surrounding not only himself, but the rest of the team and employees at MWR, Bowyer admitted he is "relieved" to be a part of the championship battle heading into the final 10 races.
"Obviously everybody knows the news, all the stories, all the stuff," Bowyer said after Saturday night's race. "But to be able to battle through that, all the people at the organization, just a great deal of thanks, to keep your head down, keep digging, got ourselves in the Chase. A big monumental thing for an organization to go through what we're going through and to push through and get into the Chase. This is the best of the best, the elite of all of motorsports. MWR is once again part of it."
Aside from the off-track distractions and drama that has unfolded over the past couple months, Bowyer and the No. 15 team struggled throughout much of the season as they fought to find consistency. As the team struggled, Bowyer admits he started to doubt whether they could make the Chase.
"I doubted it early summer. That's when I doubted it. I just didn't see this," he said. "You know, I'm optimistic always. ... But I'm also a realistic person and set realistic goals and understand the realism behind what you're up against. I just didn't see it through the summer months. We weren't clicking. Didn't really have a person in that other car that was consistent. It was in and out, in and out. All of a sudden we made a couple changes within the organization. David (Ragan) came on board and we really took off."
As the season hit the midway mark at Daytona International Speedway in July, MWR swapped crew chiefs, pairing Billy Scott with Bowyer and partnering Brian Pattie with Ragan on the No. 55 Toyota.
With Scott calling the shots, Bowyer has recorded eight top-10 finishes. While Bowyer said Pattie got the team to where it is today, the driver is eager to race in the Chase with Scott atop the pit box.
"Billy Scott, have a lot of confidence in him. He's a young crew chief. He's just eager. He's full of piss and vinegar," said Bowyer. "He really dug deep and put us in this situation. Proud of his efforts and happy for him as a person."
As the series heads to Chicagoland Speedway to kick off the 10-race Chase, Bowyer understands his team has already accomplished a lot and has nothing to lose going for the title.
"The pressure's off, man. For us, that's a huge, huge accomplishment for MWR," he said, adding he believes they are far from done. "Nobody expects you to do anything. I've done it before.
"It actually is easier coming into it the way we are right now, because the pressure's off," he said. "We go in there. We're pushing ahead and go for broke every single weekend. All of a sudden if you can get yourself down to the last two or three rounds, it starts getting nerve-wracking again. For right now we're going to take this in, have fun with it, go (home) to Kansas, and then try to perform at Chicago as we need to."