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A Clint Bowyer championship run? Why not?

  Clint Bowyer, and his Loudon winner (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  Clint Bowyer showed up in New York City the other day, for NASCAR's championship media blitz, wearing his usual outfit -- blue jeans, plaid work shirt, and cowboy boots.
  Yep, Bowyer is that kind of guy, the easy-going Midwestern cowboy, with a ready grin, and a hearty, friendly laugh.
  A real dirt-tracker.
  And in the first race of the Sprint Cup title chase here Sunday, he and crew chief Shane Wilson made a big point for the underdogs in this sport, winning, in a dramatic finish against Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton.
  If four-time champ Jimmie Johnson continues having problems – he finished 24th here, after struggling through the last 10 races of the regular season averaging only a 17.0 – this year's title run may well be wide-open. And Wilson says "Why not us?"

    Nice day at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and a good crowd for Clint Bowyer's dramatic victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Mike Dillon, Bowyer's spotter and team manager, told car owner Richard Childress in victory circle afterwards "This is the best thing for NASCAR -- we need somebody like Clint Bowyer winning races and running for this championship.
  "'Because Clint came from the short tracks, the dirt tracks.  He's worked, and he's earned his way to where he is today.' 
  "He's very fan-friendly. The fans love him.
  "It's what I think NASCAR needs: a new type of hero....Cowboy boots -- I've got mine on right now."
  Unheralded might be the way to describe Bowyer, a four-year player on Richard Childress' team. Solid, steady....but he just barely made his way into the playoffs, and he started Sunday's 300 12th and last in the standings.
  But now he's jumped up to second, just 35 points behind Hamlin, heading this week to Dover, Del., for Round Two of the 10-race run.
  "We launched ourselves into the pressure cooker early....and you've got to be able to continue to have as much fun as we did this weekend," Bowyer says of what he feels is his team's edge in all this.
  "That's what it takes to run at this level, to be a part of that Chase -- to continue to have as much fun as we did this weekend. I know it's the key to my success.  When I'm having fun, I'm always performing at my best, and I think it showed this weekend."
  Bowyer was fast right out of the box at the start of the race, with some cool, if not by the book, calls by crew chief Shane Wilson, on the pit box for Bowyer for only some 50-races so far.
  And when rivals made other moves, or ran into a series of disasters, Bowyer was looking good.
  Down the stretch it was Bowyer and the rest all chasing Tony Stewart, in what had shaped up as a gas mileage finish, with a late long run of green.
  First Burton ran out with less than two laps to go. Then moments later Stewart ran too. Hamlin was the only guy who knew he had enough gas to finish. Bowyer, Wilson and Childress were all sweating it out.
  "I didn't know how short we was on fuel," Childress said. "I knew it was going to be close. And as soon as he got into second place, they started telling him to slow down."
  Since Stewart's lost gamble cost him nearly 100 points in the playoffs, and could very possibly take him right out of the hunt, there is already serious second-guessing.
  In a head-to-head battle, Bowyer had already shown he had a car that could not only lead but dominate.
  So this gas-mileage win was no backdoor performance.
  And it was a gamble that Bowyer and Wilson, who barely made it into the chase, could afford to take.

Clint Bowyer at the finish line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  "We overcame some adversity," Bowyer said, referring to his mid-race carburetor problems that dropped him off the lead and that hampered him on restarts.
  "And I really thought I could run Tony down. But Shane told me I needed to start saving fuel. And it's hard to run somebody down and save fuel at the same time.
  "I don't know what happened to the carburetor. Had to have piece of dirt in it, or something. It was just popping, cracking, and wouldn't take off.  The longer we ran, the better it got...because I didn't have so much throttle response off the corner and wasn't spinning (tires) as bad. 
  "So it kind of worked in my favor.
  "I was trying to save as much (fuel)as I could -- I was lifting halfway down the straight, and not hitting the brakes until almost in the corner. And letting it roll around there as long as you could before we picked up the gas.
  "I saw Denny coming (in the final 20 miles), and 'Well, I'm not going to let him pass me. I am going to run out before the guy passes me again.'"
  Chasing Stewart while trying to stay ahead of Hamlin....
   "You want to stay close enough (to Stewart) that you're keeping pressure on him, but you also want to take care of business.
  "He told me save two laps, and it's not rocket science -- When you're lifting at the flag stand, you'd better make a lot of those to make up for two laps of wide-open throttle.
  "I tried to do that as much as I could, and keep momentum through the corner, to keep a little pressure on him.
  "It just worked out. It just as easily couldn't have."
  While teammate Kevin Harvick led the Childress operation through the regular season, an early four-tire pit call Sunday put him in a hole, and Harvick didn't even break into the top-15 till the final miles. Yet Harvick wound up fifth.
  Bowyer's performance here shows the Childress turnaround this season is no one-man show.
  A championship for ol' RC?
  It's been a while since he got one of those trophies....back in the Earnhardt days.
  "In 2000 we just missed the championship by a few points," Childress said. "And in 2001 I felt we were as prepared as ever...and I think we are as prepared now as we've ever been.
  "We were spending the money in 2009; we was doing a lot of the right things, but we just kind of went down the wrong path."
  At Charlotte a year ago spring Childress and Company appeared to be hitting the bottom. Harvick wanted to leave. Nothing seemed to be working.
  "At that 600 I stood on the trailer and saw how we were chasing our tails and how behind we were," Childress said. "We were in a panic mode.
  "I came back Monday or Tuesday, had a meeting with everyone, and started making changes.
  "Told them 'You have to build. It's just like building a house -- your foundation is a start of a good home. And the foundation for a good race car is a good chassis.
  "We just started from there."
  Bowyer remembers that stretch too well: "Everybody was down.  It was a dismal year.
  "So we started from scratch...moved people around.
  "It's all about people. That's the one thing he's taught me -- in this sport you're only as good as the people around you."

    The car that finished first. And just what did NASCAR eventually find wrong with this thing three days later? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  It's Danica Time again this week, with the Indy-car star, who has struggled on both sides of this sport this season, heading to Dover for Saturday's Nationwide race...and a Friday workout NASCAR's Pro Series East race.
   Maybe teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself is getting back in the swing of things. Just a week after a terrible performance at Richmond, Earnhardt ran well here, finishing fourth.
  "We can't qualify very good here, but once we get in race trim, we just kind of go to the front, or get near the front," Earnhardt said.
  "We had an eighth-place finish last time and felt we were really fast and competitive all day long.
  "This time we had a top-10 car, but we had the jack-stop break and had to go to the back. And then we had a miscommunication with on pit road that cost us half a lap under green.
  "Track position was what we needed at the end; we didn't have it.
  "I think if we had the track position, we were as fast as Tony at times and Jamie and all those guys battling for it.
  But Clint had everybody covered. I don't know if anybody would have been able to hold him off."
  Aric Almirola was on stand-by for driver Scott Speed for Sunday's 300, after Speed became ill Friday night.
  Speed's future with the Red Bull team appears still up in the air for 2011.
  Kurt Busch wound up with an extra set of tires during Friday practice, and NASCAR docked him 15 minutes of Saturday practice. Crew chief Steve Addington called it "a miscommunication" with NASCAR.
  Crewman Mike Hillman Jr. suffered a badly injured ankle Friday when he was hit on pit road during a Pro Series East race.
  Carl Edwards will travel to Germany in late November to run in the international Race of Champions in Dusseldorf, as part of Team USA.
  The drivers run in identically prepared cars. Edwards ran in the 2008 event. Among the others competing are Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, Sebastien Loeb, Tom Kristensen, Sebastian Vettel and Andy Priaulx.

    Clint Bowyer high-fives his crew after a tense victory at Loudon, N.H. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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