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 in Loudon, and with nothing to lose, he swung for the fences.
Bowyer dominated Sunday until a series of cautions found him trailing Tony Stewart in the late laps of the Chase opener. With both drivers trying to nurse 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. Stewart finished 24th.
It snapped an 88-race losing streak for Bowyer, propelled 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 23rd-place finish.
Larry Dixon raced to his 11th Top Fuel victory of year, beating Doug Kalitta in the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals in Concord, N.C. Dixon had a winning pass of 3.858 seconds at 316.60 mph. Kalitta finished in 3.901 seconds at 309.20 mph. Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also won their divisions. … Pole-sitter Helio Castroneves won the Indy Japan 300 in Motegi, and Dario Franchitti finished second to set up a two-man race with Will Power for the IndyCar title going into the final event of the season – Oct. 2 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Franchitti, who clinched the inaugural A.J. Foyt Oval Championship Trophy for earning the most points in the series’ oval races, trails Power by 12 points.