LOUDON, N.H. – Almost from the very start of Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, it was clear that the only thing Clint Bowyer had to fear was Clint himself.
Driving a No. 07 Chevrolet that led every virtually every lap it could have, given the need for the occasional pit stop, Bowyer rolled to victory in the first race in this year’s Chase for the Nextel Cup.
It was a rout and a romp, an old-fashioned country backside kicking. Bowyer led 222 laps and won by pretty much all he wanted to over runner-up Jeff Gordon. The outcome moved Bowyer from 12th in the Chase standings all the way to fourth, just 15 points behind Jimmie Johnson, who finished sixth Sunday, and 10 behind Tony Stewart, who finished third.
It looked easy, but over the final 50 laps or so, Bowyer was squawking over his radio about the car getting tight and about how much trouble he was having dealing with traffic. Crew chief Gil Martin, spotter Mike Dillon and Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick offered counsel to ease Bowyer’s unwarranted angst.
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“The only thing that could have beat us was ourselves,” Bowyer reasoned. “It was important to me. I didn’t want to mess up.”
At one point, the sun came out from behind a cloud on a cool but lovely day. That change in conditions was among the woes Bowyer found himself imagining.
“I just couldn’t run the line I had been running all day,” he said. “Once I calmed down and switched my line we got back to running good lap times. And I just kept looking in my mirror to see where they were at.”
Martin, sitting beside his driver in the winners’ press gathering, offered perspective.
“You needed a bigger mirror,” he said.
Bowyer said he didn’t realize so many people listen to drivers so closely over their radios. They do, of course, when that driver is putting a big hurt on the field.
“When you’re driving down the interstate in traffic and somebody cuts you off, you know you say something to yourself,” he said. “For me, it’s so easy to reach over and hit that (radio) button. It’s like the pop-off valve for me.”
Gordon and Tony Stewart, who finished third in a race in which Chase drivers swept the top seven and 11 of the top 18 finishing positions, were both incredulous and empathetic to hear about Bowyer’s late-race concerns and complaints.
“I am just glad to hear he was complaining about something,” Gordon said. “He was complaining and driving away.”
Stewart laughed. “I would have liked to have been in his car complaining,” he said.
Bowyer, of course, can be excused to a large degree for the paranoia. This was his 64th Cup start, and despite running consistently enough to make this year’s Chase he’d never finished better than third.
Just a few years ago, he was driving on dirt tracks around his native Kansas, mainly just as a way to have fun with his family. Now, he was leading two drivers with six combined career championships on the way to an apparent win.
Stewart said every winning driver has been there.
“You’re just praying that everything’s going to go right, especially when you have a day like he had,” Stewart said.
“You’re so fearful that something that’s out of your control is going to happen and take it away from you. It’s not hard to start imaging things that are happening to your race car.”
But nothing did happen, at least not until Bowyer leaned on the No. 07 Chevrolet so hard in his postrace burnout that he couldn’t get it started to drive to victory lane.
“It was a little odd walking into victory lane,” Bowyer said. There waiting to congratulate him were several drivers, including Harvick and fellow RCR teammate Jeff Burton along with Stewart and others. Bowyer’s father, Chris, was there, too.
So, too, were Martin and the team that put the dominant car under Bowyer that allowed him to erase the question about being the only driver in this year’s Chase without a victory either this year or in his career.
Before winning the pole for this race on Friday, Bowyer talked about there not being pressure from expectations on him and his team in the championship battle. The way his car whipped everybody here, though, that’s over.
Bowyer’s OK with that, too. He can do the underdog thing, but contender works, too.
“We’ve worked hard, we were consistent and we did the things we needed to do to be in this Chase,” he said. “We earned a spot in this Chase and we belong here. Today we did what we were supposed to do and we didn’t make any mistakes.
“This is what we needed. We need to get that cocky attitude. ...The elite teams have that. They have confidence going into the weekend that they’re going to run well. Everyone on those teams has confidence in every move they make.”