First, at Last
Clint Bowyer picked an ideal time for his debut Cup win, taking the Chase opener to stamp himself as a title threat
NOW THAT Clint Bowyer has won his first Cup race, it suddenly doesn't seem ridiculous to wonder if he just might win his first championship as well. So dominant was Bowyer's victory at New Hampshire International Speedway, in Loudon, on Sunday in the opening race of the Chase for the Nextel Cup, that no less an authority than four-time champ Jeff Gordon proclaimed the performance "incredible." Bowyer, the only winless driver to qualify for the 2007 postseason, put on a clinic in his Chase debut, leading a race-high 222 laps, 26 more than he'd led in all the races of his career (63) combined. As a result he jumped from 12th to fourth in the standings. With races coming up at two of Bowyer's favorite tracks (Dover and Kansas) in the next two weeks, he could be in the driver's seat in more ways than one in this Chase.
For Bowyer, 28, the win was especially sweet because he was picked by most observers to finish at or near the bottom of the Chase standings, and he had to pass the days leading up to the race defending his credentials. "It was all just fuel for the fire," he says.
The victory was also immensely satisfying to Bowyer's crew chief at Richard Childress Racing, Gil Martin, who had coaxed his driver and his team through the 26-race regular season always with an eye on "the big picture," he says. Instead of taking risks to go after wins and top-five finishes, Martin steadfastly chose to play it safe—Bowyer, whose two top fives were the fewest of any driver in the Chase, is one of only three Cup regulars to have finished every race in 2007. "Everybody has tried to put pressure on Clint and on us," says Martin. "We just haven't accepted it. A win before today would have gained us 10 more points [at the start of the Chase], but it wouldn't have gained us the momentum that this did."
Martin's approach might not have worked with a more headstrong pilot, but in Bowyer he seemed to have the perfect mix of patience and ability as they pursued their strategy. That doesn't mean Bowyer wasn't primed for his breakout performance. The car that Martin prepared for him on Sunday—a new Car of Tomorrow model that he'll use throughout the Chase—had a multitude of chassis and engine modifications that made it a different ride from what Bowyer was used to during the season. Any doubts about the new car and its driver's ability to handle it vanished, though, in the early going on Sunday, after Bowyer surrendered the lead to Chase favorites Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon coming off pit row during a caution on Lap 68. Restarting fourth, Bowyer methodically ran both drivers down over the next 37 miles. He would never trail either man again.
If Bowyer has a weakness, it's that winning is a new experience for him. In the final laps at New Hampshire, he griped frequently to Martin over the radio about the tightness of his car, but in truth it seemed to be nothing more than an acute case of first-win nerves. With the victory, he now trails overall leader Jimmie Johnson by just 15 points. In other words, Bowyer doesn't need to win again. All he needs to do is stay consistent. And he already knows he can do that.
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1 Besides Clint Bowyer, the other big winner in Loudon was Martin Truex Jr., whose fifth-place finish sets him up perfectly for his return this week to Dover, where he had an impressive victory in June, leading 216 of 400 laps. Truex moved up one position in the standings, to sixth, last week and a second win at Dover would vault him into the first rank of Chase contenders.
2 Don't forget about Kyle Busch (above). He jumped four spots in the points, to fifth, after a fourth-place run on Sunday. It was a far cry from how he began the 2006 Chase, when he followed a 38th-place Loudon finish with a 40th at Dover, derailing his Cup dreams. He's now just 35 points out of the lead.
GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES
IN THE BLACK In Loudon, Bowyer started on the pole and led a race-high 222 laps.
GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES
[See caption above]
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (BUSCH)