Smoke sputters and Bowyer pounces to win Chase race at New Hampshire, snapping 88-race drought

By Jenna Fryer, AP
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bowyer snaps 88-race drought in Chase opener

LOUDON, N.H. — Clint Bowyer cruised into New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend, comfortable with not being included among the popular championship contenders.

No pressure. No problems.

And just like that, he’s found himself in the thick of the title hunt.

Bowyer won the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship opener Sunday, snapping an 88-race drought when Tony Stewart ran out of gas with a lap remaining.

It was just the third career victory for Bowyer at NASCAR’s top level, and it was similar to his first win — in the 2007 Chase opener — when he stormed out of the gate at New Hampshire to cement his candidacy as a contender.

“I hate it for Tony. You hate to win races like that,” Bowyer said. “But I got here, and I felt like this race back in 2007. We did it again.”

The replay was no different for Bowyer. His Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was the most dominant car on Sunday, although Bowyer found himself chasing down Stewart after a flurry of cautions chopped away his lead and put Stewart out front.

The two-time series champion wouldn’t have been caught, but he and Bowyer were both trying to stretch their fuel the final 92 laps and it was anyone’s guess if they could make it to the finish line. Bowyer conserved his gas, but Stewart ran wide open — and it cost him dearly.

Stewart ran out of fuel right before the white flag lap, and Bowyer sailed past him for the lead. He still had to contend with a hard-charging Denny Hamlin, who rallied from a mid-race accident to put himself in position to pounce should the leaders run dry.

Bowyer made it, then ran out of gas during his victory celebration.

Stewart slid from potential winner to 24th, and took the gaffe in stride.

“We went down swinging,” he said, shrugging. “It’s a tough way to start the Chase. I would have settled for second. If you knew exactly how much gas you have, it would be different, but you never know. It’s part of the sport, always has been. It’s what makes it exciting when you never know until the last lap who’s going to happen.”

The final laps were agonizing for Bowyer, who led 177 but thought victory was slipping away when he couldn’t aggressively chase down Stewart because of his fuel situation.

“It’s terrible. You want to go and I thought I could run him down, but I was using so much fuel through the middle of the corner that I had to back down,” Bowyer said.

Hamlin, the points leader, finished second and goes into Dover next weekend with a 35-point advantage over Bowyer in the standings. Hamlin had climbed to fourth on a restart with 88 laps to go, but Carl Edwards ran into him to send Hamlin into a potentially race-ruining spin.

Hamlin dropped to 22nd, headed to the pits for repairs, then stormed back through the field to salvage the day and extend his lead over second place in the standings.

“When we restarted 22nd, I immediately set a goal and said, ‘Let’s finish top 15,’” Hamlin said. “A few things happen and it was like, ‘Let’s get a top eight,’ and then, ‘Top six. Holy cow, we can win this thing.’ It was one of those days, we just made a heck of a charge at the end.”

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