-- RICHMOND, Va. -- It hasn't been the best of seasons for Clint Bowyer.
In fact, the past two years have been pretty bad for the easy-going Kansan, and it's easy to pinpoint the time and place when and where the rot set in: It was at Richmond International Raceway, the night of Sept. 7, 2013, the night Bowyer scratched an itch on his arm and spun out, triggering a series of events that eventually prompted NASCAR to declare him and Michael Waltrip Racing guilty of manipulating the result of that race -- actually, the whole Chase, but that's a story for another day.
It has been downhill ever since for MWR, to the point where the team announced a few weeks ago it will cease operations at the end of the 2015 season, completing its rapid post-Spingate fall from grace.
But there is somewhat of a happy ending in sight for Bowyer and MWR because a 10th-place finish Saturday night back at Richmond in the Federated Auto Parts 400 was enough to clinch a Chase berth for the No. 15 team.
Bowyer and his crew don't know what they will be doing next year. But at least they know their last 10 races together will really mean something, even if they enter the Chase as a championship long shot.
"Relieved" is how Bowyer described his overriding emotion after a steady drive in which he moved up 16 places from his starting position.
"Obviously everybody knows all the news and the stories, but to be able to battle through that, I owe everybody in the organization a great deal of thanks for keeping their head down, to keep digging and get ourselves into the Chase," he said.
"It's a big monumental thing for an organization to go through what we're going through. To get to the Chase is the best of the best, the elite in motorsports, and MWR is once again a part of it. I'm really proud of [crew chief] Billy Scott and everybody on the 5-Hour Energy Toyota."
Bowyer entered the Richmond weekend as the man on the bubble, the 16th-ranked driver in the standings heading into the cutoff race for the Chase.
For the most part, all Bowyer had to do was stay out of trouble to insure a smooth path into the Chase. But Almirola made things interesting, rising from 24th on the grid to an eventual fourth-place finish, his best result of the season in the Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.
With Bowyer running solidly in the top 10, it was a moot point for Almirola, who ended up 17th in the points and the first man not in the Chase. Kahne finished 18th at Richmond, matching his position in the standings.
The disappointment Almirola and Kahne felt Saturday night was something Bowyer's MWR team could relate to.
Bowyer's then-teammate Martin Truex Jr. was thrown out of the 2013 Chase by NASCAR as a penalty after they had made it in -- thanks in part to Bowyer's allegedly intentional spin; perhaps worse, the controversy caused sponsor NAPA Auto Parts to leave the team, and that led to Truex leaving.
A downsized MWR and Bowyer struggled in 2014, falling to 19th in the standings, and the team suffered financial strife, eventually leading to the August announcement that the team would close its doors at the end of the 2015 campaign, leaving Bowyer, second driver David Ragan and some 200 employees jobless.
By then, Bowyer was starting to believe 2015 would be another wasted season. But Waltrip and business partner Rob Kauffman moved some people around, moving Scott in to take over as crew chief on Bowyer's car.
Other than a DNF at Michigan and an uncompetitive run to 17th place at Darlington, Bowyer and the No. 15 have finished in the top 10 every week since Indianapolis in late July.
"Early summer is when I doubted," Bowyer admitted. "I didn't even see this as being possible. I'm optimistic always in my thought process, but I'm also a realistic person and set realistic goals and understand what you're up against. And I just didn't see it through the summer months. We weren't clicking, didn't really have a person in the other car that was keeping things consistent.
"All of a sudden we made a couple changes in the organization," he continued. "David Ragan came on board, and we really took off. I have a lot of confidence in Billy Scott; he was a young crew chief, he's just eager, full of piss and vinegar and he really dug deep and put us in this situation. So I'm really proud of his efforts and happy for him as a person. Happy for all these crew guys. They're all looking for jobs for the future, and this is a big accomplishment and feather in their hat looking for work."
In some ways, Bowyer enters this year's Chase in a position to make the same kind of run that came so close to netting Ryan Newman and Richard Childress Racing the 2014 Sprint Cup championship.
Bowyer has been here before, chasing eventual champion Jimmie Johnson all the way to the wire in 2012, and finished in the top five of the standings twice during his own tenure with RCR.
With expectations low, he and the No. 15 team could spring a surprise or two over the next 10 weeks.
"We've been beat up pretty bad this year, so to be able to get things turned around there late in the going through the summer months was really neat to see -- a breath of fresh air," Bowyer said.
"I hate to say this, but it's actually nice to go into the Chase the way we are. The pressure is off. Hell, we were just trying to make the Chase, and that's big -- it's monumental for our organization and our team.
"Now let's go have fun, push full bore and get everything we can out of every single weekend and see what happens."