LOUDON, N.H. — As the last seed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Clint Bowyer didn’t land on many lists of legitimate title contenders.
Bowyer wasn’t mentioned in the same breath as four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, and that spotlight on favorites Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick never drifted in his direction.
Bowyer was pressure-free as he headed into the Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and with nothing to lose, he swung for the fences.
Bowyer dominated Sunday until a series of cautions found him trailing Tony Stewart over the closing laps of the Chase opener. With both drivers trying to nurse their sputtering fuel tanks to the finish, Bowyer found himself in position to pounce when Stewart’s tank ran dry a lap from the checkered flag.
It snapped an 88-race losing streak for Bowyer, jettisoned him from 12th in the standings to second, and sent the Richard Childress Racing driver into Round 2 of the Chase loving his championship chances.
“I had a lot of fun, it was kind of a relaxing weekend,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be that way from now on. But I’m telling you, we launched ourselves into the pressure cooker early. You’ve got to be able to continue to have as much fun as we did this weekend. If we can do that, we can continue to have the success and run at this pace.”
And what a pace it was.
In arguably the best Chase opener since the format’s 2004 debut, the championship contenders bounced all over the field Sunday as driver after driver faced various issues.
Hamlin, the points leader, was spun by Carl Edwards on a mid-race restart and rallied from 22nd to finish second. Harvick, the points leader for most of the “regular season,” struggled through a series of bad pit stops to fall as low as 18th before finishing fifth.
Johnson was derailed by a loose right wheel late in the race to finish 25th, the lowest of the Chase drivers. And after stressing that New Hampshire was his biggest concern of the Chase, Matt Kenseth capped a weekend of struggles with a noncompetitive 23rd-place finish.
Then there was Stewart, who tried to stretch his gas the final 92 laps in pursuit of the victory.
When it backfired, he limped his car home to a 24th-place finish that cost him five spots in the standings.
“We went down swinging,” he said, shrugging. “It’s a tough way to start the Chase. I would have settled for second. If you knew exactly how much gas you have, it would be different, but you never know. It’s part of the sport, always has been. It’s what makes it exciting when you never know until the last lap who’s going to happen.”
The Chase shifts next weekend to Dover, Del., where Hamlin takes a 35-point lead over Bowyer into one of his weakest race tracks.
“It gives me somewhat of a buffer,” he said. “We all know how Dover is for me.”
The race at the top of the standings is still tight, even for Johnson, who dropped five spots to seventh. But at only 92 points out and headed to a track where he’s a five-time winner, Johnson didn’t seem worried.
“We’ll go home and get back to work and go after it again next week,” Johnson said.
He’ll now have to contend with Bowyer, who is looking for a repeat of the 2007 Chase.
He slid into the field that year and earned his first career victory with a breakthrough win in the New Hampshire opener. It set the tone for a strong run for Bowyer, who wound up a career-high third in the final standings.
Bowyer felt as if he was still capable of winning the championship that year as he headed into the season finale trailing Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and he hopes the momentum of his New Hampshire repeat helps him hang with the leaders the next nine weeks.
“This reminded me a lot of 2007,” he said. “That first win of the season … that confidence, the momentum, everybody, not just for me. Everybody has a major pep in their step right now and they are going to carry that through on to next week and if we can continue to ride that momentum wave through this Chase, we can have a shot at it just like we did in 2007.”
It could have gone very differently, though.
Bowyer was pressed by crew chief Shane Wilson to save his fuel, and the order frustrated him as he tried to run down Stewart. Bowyer knew if he couldn’t run wide-open, he wouldn’t catch Stewart, and he wanted the win after leading a race-high 177 laps.
He successfully managed his fuel, and Stewart ran out of gas right before he took the white flag.
Bowyer sailed past him, held off the hard-charging Hamlin, and never second-guessed Wilson’s call.
“You dominated the race. You owe it to yourself to go out there and try and win the race,” he said. “We are the 12th seed going in, those are the kind of chances you’re going to have to take to beat these guys in this championship Chase.”