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Clint Bowyer wins NASCAR's playoff opener, but Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth now have to dig out of a hole

  Clint Bowyer! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern




   In a topsy-turvy opener to NASCAR's championship playoff opener, Clint Bowyer wins....in something of a surprise, on a rather surprising late summer Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway -- when Tony Stewart ran out of gas with less than two miles to go in the Sylvania 300, after Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth both wound up wounded.
   The win breaks an 88-race winless streak for Bowyer, stretching back to Richmond in the spring of 2008.

    Crew chief Shane Wilson (R) hugs winner Clint Bowyer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And Bowyer and crew chief Shane Wilson, who came into this race in last place in the chase standings but go to Dover, Del., this week a solid second, just 35 points behind leader Denny Hamlin, were clearly jubilant in victory.
   But Bowyer still points at Johnson – a dismal 25th in the chase opener – as still the man to beat over these final 10 races: "He's still the guy everybody is chasing. He's won four of these things in a row. You'd have to be a fool not to think he's not going to be the one down to the wire you're going to be racing for this thing.
   "But I have to tell you this is as strong a chase field as I've seen since I've been in the sport. The cars, the competition, everything, is so much closer than ever been.

   Denny Hamlin didn't have a smooth afternoon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "You don't have that dominant organization. When Jimmie was winning four races in the chase, so were his teammates; they won the rest of them. It wasn't like there was a multitude of cars winning races...
   "And now, I mean, RCR, we didn't win a race last year. Now we've got three of us in it with a shot at the championship.
   "Things are really shaking up for this to be an awesome chase race. And I hope there are at least three to six cars going into Homestead (the finale) with a legit shot at the championship. That's what this sport needs."
   When Stewart ran out on the next to last lap, Bowyer came around to the flag the following lap and saw Stewart still puttering around trying to make it to the finish line himself.
   "I was really going to push him across," Bowyer said. "But I didn't know what to do there. So I just went on to celebrate.
   "You hate to see that for anybody. You can imagine the heartbreak of running out of gas with one lap to go. You don't wish bad things upon anybody.
   "So you're happy you won the race, and you leave it at that.
   "You hate to benefit from somebody else's mishap. But that's certainly part of racing. We have won and lost races the same way. That's just part of this sport."
   For Wilson those final miles were a gamble too, because Bowyer's last gas stop was the same time as Stewart's, on lap 208 of the 300.
   "We came in the 12th seed, and we talked about it before the race, that it's going to allow us to race a lot looser than some of people," Wilson said.
   "But now, going to Dover in second place, I don't know if I'll make that call or not."


   Clint Bowyer runs across the track to congratulate his winning team (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   For runner-up Denny Hamlin – as for most of the 12 championship contenders, particularly Jimmie Johnson (25th) – the day was filled with more thrills than he'd really hoped for.
   Hamlin, the tour points leader at the start of the day, and again at the end, started deep in the field: "And it took us so long to get up front. And then when we finally got to fourth, we got spun. And it was hard to battle back from 22nd, after that," Hamlin said.
   Hamlin referred to a tangle with Carl Edwards. "I guess Carl just got loose," Hamlin said. "Then he hit us a ton again. I really thought he was going to save it....
   "I was really glad we didn't get clobbered by the rest of the field."
   That was just one of several incidents where a number of drivers avoided catastrophy by just a hair. Certainly some good highlights footage to replay.
   Indeed drivers were remarkably aggressive, for a race that most title contenders had planned to run conservatively.
   "I was surprised everyone was so aggressive on restarts," Hamlin said.
   The three best cars of the day were Bowyer's, Stewart's and Jamie McMurray's. But then we never really got a chance to see how good our car was."
   Hamlin, who had plenty of gas at the end and was on the charge, figured he might have caught Bowyer in another lap or two.
   But the tour leader said he was just glad to get out of here cleanly. "I just really wanted a top-six today...so first mission accomplished. This gives me a little buffer for Dover...and everyone knows how Dover is for me. We finished 22nd and two laps down at Dover last year in the chase race."
   The loss was major blow to Stewart, who lost 94 points in the gas mileage gamble, by losing a 'win and finishing 24th. He last stopped for fuel on lap 208 of the 300, and so did Bowyer and Jeff Burton. Burton, running fourth, ran out of gas just moments before Stewart did too. But Bowyer, Burton's teammate, managed to make the distance.
   Bowyer, who led 177 laps during the warm afternoon, ran into trouble midway through the three-hour event.
   "I don't know what happened to our car halfway through the race, because the carburetor started skipping...and I couldn't get going on restarts....but that actually wound up helping me at the end," Bowyer said.
   With the win, Bowyer was having visions of his 2007 season. That was when the then-new driver on the Richard Childress roster came out of this track with a win, and he parlayed that into a strong bid for the championship.

   Stewart himself conceded afterwards he was "not happy. But we went down swinging.
   "It's hard to lose one like this, and a tough way to start the chase.
   "But this team is not going to give up. We've got nine more races to go.
   "I think I ran me out of fuel. These guys (his crew) apologized for running me out of fuel, but I think I ran me out of fuel. (By running too hard.) Of course it's easier to save fuel when you know how much you have to save.....
"Yes, we'd make the same call again....but we would have probably settled for second (by slowing down)."
   Kevin Harvick was the most consistent racer during the year's first 26 events, but this afternoon wasn't very good. Nevertheless, with all the ups and downs of the day, Harvick wound up with a fifth.
   "We didn't have a great day, we didn't have a great weekend here...and to come out with a top-five," Harvick said almost in amazement.

    Pit road at Loudon gets pretty jammed (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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