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'Underdog' Clint Bowyer opens the chase with a bang. Now can he handle the pressure?


By Mike Mulhern


   Just as he did here three years ago, Clint Bowyer opened NASCAR's championship playoffs with a victory, and this one was in a rather strange afternoon, when four-time champion Jimmie Johnson had trouble, and two-time champion Tony Stewart ran out of gas and lost the lead in the final two miles, and 2004 champion Matt Kenseth wound up hard into the wall.
   So what to make of this afternoon, the first of the 10-race chase?
   That it may indeed be a wide-open title battle.
   "It all just reminds me so much of 2007....the confidence level of the race team, the equipment, pep in our steps...." Bowyer said after his third career tour win, and first in more than two years.
   "When we unloaded here, we had one of the fastest cars here. And we're having fun. When I'm having fun, I think that's when I perform at my best."

  Tony Stewart ran out of gas the last lap (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The three-hour race turned into a gas mileage game at the end, and when Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart both ran out in the final miles, Bowyer was certainly worried.
   "To come in here the underdog, just like in 2007, and set the pace, that's what it takes,' Bowyer says.
   "And all three of our (Richard Childress-owned) cars ran well and finished well."
   Shane Wilson, Bowyer's crew chief, may not be one of the best-known crew chiefs in the sport, but he's certainly up to the game: "We're still a pretty new team, just 50-some races into this deal working together, and I want to give my guys a lot of credit."
   "I could tell by Shane's voice that I needed to save fuel," Bowyer said. "But this is the first fuel mileage race all year long I think. Nobody wants to see those, but I like the double-file starts...
   "When I saw those guys run out, I was thinking 'Okay, when am I going to run out?' Fortunately it wasn't until the (victory) burnout.
   "When the 12th seed (Bowyer) wins the first race, that shows you what this chase is going to be like.
   "We've got a team that can win this championship. We just have to get it done.
   "Shane told me I needed to save two laps of fuel...and I was thinking I needed to save four. But then I saw Denny Hamlin coming and I wasn't going to let him pass me....
   "As I was backing up my lap times, Tony was too....and it all worked out."

   Boy, Jimmie Johnson (48) and Kurt Busch (2) just seem like magnets. And how is Carl Edwards (99) going to get through this? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Denny Hamlin, runner-up in the wild ending, had one of the best cars, but he started deep in the pack and just as he was getting close to the front, he tangled with Carl Edwards while battling side-by-side.
   "I just got loose under Denny," Edwards, who wound up 11th, said. "It was the first time I 'chattered' the rear tires all day, and I took him out.
   "He probably had the car to beat. It was just unfortunate that we had that situation out there."
   "I guess Carl just got loose," Hamlin said. "He hit us and we saved it...and I moved way up the track, in case somebody else was up under there. And then he just hit us a ton again."
   Hamlin said the tone of the race was unexpected: "I was very surprised – really - to see how aggressive guys were on restarts.
   "It is such a balance...because you've got guys like Jamie McMurray (who is not in the chase and thus doesn't have to worry about points-racing) that are 'Win, win, win!' and we're like 'I just don't want to get hit on restarts.'
   "And this is one of the toughest tracks to have restarts.
   "So I was really worried about this (chase race) track in particular -- getting out of here unscathed. And we didn't...but we just battled back.
   "Overall it was pretty surprising to me to see really how aggressive it was."
   Will that be the tone for this chase? Perhaps.
   While Hamlin made an amazing comeback, others weren't as lucky.
   Stewart, who ran out of fuel while leading here with two laps to go in the summer of 1999 and lost to Jeff Burton, went from first to 24th in the final moments of the three-hour race. That cost him almost 100 points in the chase, a big hit.
   Johnson, though surviving several near disasters that could have put him behind the wall, lost a lap for repairs after one of those incidents and finished 25th.
   Jeff Burton, running fourth down the stretch, ran out in the final miles too and dropped to 15th. That cost him 42 points.
   Kurt Busch was another chase racer who conceded he "had a rough day" in finishing 13th.
   "Maybe I was overdriving it," Busch said. "I got into turn one a couple of times over my head -- trying to get what seemed to be a sixth to a 10th-place car up into the top-five.
   "I almost clipped Burton once, just trying to drive in there, and ended up getting Joey Logano. I apologize for that. I was just over-driving.
   "I wasn't quite in the zone, I wasn't quite feeling it today.
   "We survived. But we needed to have a good day and not just survive."
   Pressure? Or just an off weekend?
"It's just trying to carry a car on your back that's only good for eighth-place," Busch said. "I should have settled for eighth. I wanted more.
   "I wanted a good finish today, and when you do that -- when you stretch yourself thin -- you get in trouble. That's what happened today."
   Busch's crew chief Steve Addington agreed the car was off: "I didn't think what we were going to be that bad when we started the day.
   "We have to work on our stuff; we have to work on our front-ends to get them to turn better. We have to free the back of the car up.
   "Kurt just got loose a couple of times and spun. That cost us. And that's not Kurt Busch-style."
   Teammate Brad Keselowski, who surprised everyone Friday by winning the pole, the first of his young career, didn't do much in the race itself, finishing 18th: "We had a lot of speed for qualifying but not a lot of speed in race-trim. We were probably a 15th-place car."

    At Indianapolis the winner kisses the bricks, a Dale Jarrett tradition. Now at Loudon, N.H., Clint Bowyer at the finish line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And Busch's brother Kyle didn't have a great Sunday either, though he did somehow manage to finish ninth. Kyle Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers yelled at each other all afternoon about the car's mishandling.
   "Where do I begin...." Kyle Busch said. "I thought I was driving the car right (in Saturday practice)....and apparently I didn't set the car up right. We were about two-tenths off (in practice), and I thought it was just those guys getting more speed out of their cars.
   'But in essence, it was off. We just didn't get it setup right.
   "It was mainly my fault."
   Once Rogers finally got his driver calmed down, Busch did better. However he still wasn't very happy about it: "Any time we got speed off the corner, then we missed it in the center of the corner. And any time we got speed through the middle, we couldn't get down the straights.
   "We just got what we could out of it. Fortunately our bad day right now is ninth...."
   Of course it didn't help that Busch got tangled up in two incidents. "Both wrecks -- when someone spun in front of me. But Jimmie Johnson (caught up in one of them) never saw it and drove over the back of me and spun me out the second time."
   Johnson left the track anxious to get to the next one, after a ragged day: "On that one restart, we just got turned around and got some damage, and we had to pit.
"But it is the way it is. We showed up, we did what we could, we had a decent car and ran in the top-five and top-ten...but just didn't end up finishing there. We'll go home and get back to work and go after it again next week."

    Jimmie Johnson (48) and Denny Hamlin (11) had a busy day (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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