MARTINSVILLE, Va. – You almost hate to mention Clint Bowyer’s name. It might blow his cover. Come on, you know as well as I do the driver of the No. 07 Chevrolets has to be in the witness protection program or something. How else could he maintain his anonymity despite being third in the standings halfway through the Chase for the Nextel Cup?
“You sit down in your motor home, watch TV and the commercials come on,” Bowyer says. “They say, ‘Come watch Tony Stewart chase down Jeff Gordon for the championship!’ You're like, 'Man!' ”
To be fair, the commercials actually encourage fans to come watch Jimmie Johnson and Stewart try to catch Gordon. But the point is pretty much the same.
“That’s fuel for the fire, that's all it is,” says Bowyer, who starts 21st in Sunday’s Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway. “It makes you want to do well even more, so I like it.”
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Bowyer, the only one of the 12 drivers to qualify for the 10-race playoff who didn’t win a race prior to the Chase, has converted that fuel to fire so far.
When the points were reset with bonuses for regular-season wins, Bowyer lined up 12th to start the Chase. But he was ninth in points after 26 races, so he didn’t exactly squeeze into the championship series by a whisker.
He took care of the “no wins” exception when the Chase opened at New Hampshire, scoring his first Cup win and getting a brief burst of attention in the process. He’s just 78 behind Gordon and 10 points behind Johnson, but when it comes to talking about who might deny Gordon a fifth career title, Bowyer might as well be playing in the WNBA.
Fortunately, Bowyer’s temperament allows him not to reach out and choke someone who asks if he considers himself the “odd man out” in what’s left of the title race.
“We can win this thing,” the Emporia, Kans., native insists, even if his understands how big of an underdog he still is.
“Starting the Chase, we didn't know what to expect,” Bowyer admits. “I didn't know where to set my goals. ... If we could finish in the top five this year, our second year, that'd be a successful year. We'd won a race. We sat on two poles. I'd be content with that year.
“But that first win changes everything. You go from maybe a 10th place so you can go to the banquet to, ‘Hey, we're in contention for a championship and we're going to be greedy and go after it.’ ”
Bowyer had never finished better than 35th in a Cup race at Talladega, but two weeks ago he finished 11th there. He hadn’t finished better than 19th at Charlotte, either, until a runner-up finish to Gordon there.
His No. 21 starting spot Sunday matches his Cup best at Martinsville, where his 11th-place finish in the spring was his best outcome.
“This week I'm thinking ‘If I can just make it through Martinsville,’” says Bowyer, who copped to similar thoughts before Talladega and Charlotte, too. “This is a track where anything can happen.
“There's just no room and if there's a pile-up in front of you, you might get in it. But you can only control what you can control. We need to be up front, be running up with the good cars and we need to lead laps, hopefully the most laps. We have to win races to be able to run these guys down or even to be able to capitalize if they do have trouble.”
If Bowyer is indeed worried about somebody finding out his identity, the pressure isn’t showing. Maybe it’s all part of a brilliant disguise, but it actually seems like he’s enjoying himself.
“Every week is a challenge and I look forward to it,” he said.
“It's so much fun just to be able to see how hard that we can push ourselves as a race team. It's only our second year. I don't want to push too hard and make mistakes, but this is definitely our time to prove not only to ourselves but everybody else what we're made of.”