Loudon, NH (Sports Network) -
Clint Bowyer crawled his way into this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, earning the last seed in the 12-driver field. Then Bowyer came storming out of the gate with a win in the first Chase race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Bowyer faced a similar set of circumstances in 2007, when he squeaked into the Chase after Richmond and then won his first career Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire the following week.
Bowyer indeed felt deja vu all over again on Sunday.
"It reminded me so much of 2007," Bowyer said. "Two weeks ago, going into Richmond, you're feeling the confidence level in our race team, in our equipment level, and everything was good."
Three years ago, Bowyer put on a dominating performance at New Hampshire by leading 222 of 300 laps. His win elevated him from 12th to fourth in Chase points. Bowyer remained a contender for the remainder of the '07 playoffs, but Jimmie Johnson's four victories in the last five races gave him a second straight Cup championship.
Despite leading 177 laps in this year's fall race at New Hampshire, Bowyer benefited from Tony Stewart's mishap in the final laps. Stewart led the way until he ran out of fuel with less than two laps to go, allowing second-place Bowyer to take the lead for good.
Clint Bowyer has emerged as the Cinderella story in the playoffs.
Bowyer claimed his third Cup win, but his first since May 2008 at Richmond (88 races ago). While Stewart coasted across the finish line in 24th, Bowyer's fuel finally ran out when he was attempting a burnout during his victory celebration.
"You hate to benefit from somebody else's mishap," Bowyer said. That's certainly part of racing. We have certainly won and lost races the same way, and that's just part of this sport."
Both Stewart and Bowyer last pitted with 92 laps remaining.
With the win, Bowyer jumped 10 positions to second in the Chase, as he trails leader Denny Hamlin by just 35 points. Hamlin remained atop the standings after his second-place run at New Hampshire.
Bowyer was considered as a long shot in the Chase, but after winning New Hampshire, Bowyer has emerged as the Cinderella story in the playoffs.
His strong start in the Chase is no fluke. After a dismal season in 2009, Richard Childress Racing has all three of its drivers in the playoffs this year. Kevin Harvick has three victories and ended the 26-race regular season as the points leader. Harvick, who finished fifth at New Hampshire, trails Hamlin by 45 points. Jeff Burton has not won since October 2008 at Charlotte, but has been consistent throughout the season to earn him a spot in the Chase. Burton occupies the 10th spot in points (-112) after his 15th-place run at New Hampshire.
Team owner Richard Childress has not won a Cup championship since 1994, when Dale Earnhardt captured his record-tying seventh title. This could be the year that Childress' title drought comes to an end, and Bowyer might be the driver who does it for him.
"Everybody has worked really hard and put their selves in a position to get the cars in the Chase, and I think we are as prepared as we ever have been," Childress said. "I felt in 2001 we were as prepared as ever, and I think we are as prepared now as we've ever been."
Without a doubt, Johnson will be Bowyer's biggest obstacle in the Chase. Johnson's 25th-place run at New Hampshire was the worst finish among the Chase contenders. But NASCAR's "Superman" is far from being denied his record- extending fifth consecutive championship.
"He's still the guy everybody is chasing," Bowyer said. "He's won four of these things in a row. You'd have to be a fool to think he's not going to be the one down to the wire you're going to be racing for this thing.
"Since I've been in the sport, this is as strong a Chase as ever. I think the cars, the competition, everything, is so much closer than it's ever been. You don't have that dominant organization."
Could this year's Chase turn out to be Cinderella versus Superman?