Chase opener a gas for Clint Bowyer
LOUDON, N.H. -- One 50-yard view of the frontstretch at the end revealed everything you needed to know.
Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet crawled across the finish line, his crew watching in disbelief after falling a little short of the gas they needed to win.
Clint Bowyer was right behind Stewart. Bowyer was smoking his tires on a victory lap as his No. 33 Chevy crew jumped in jubilation on the pit wall to celebrate a win that seemed improbable moments earlier.
"I was going to help push him across," Bowyer said when he saw Stewart coasting. "I didn't know what to do there, so I went ahead and celebrated."
Both teams took a gigantic chance. Both went for it with precious playoff points on the line. For one it worked. For the other it didn't.
The outcome of the Sylvania 300 and the perspective of the Chase opener changed in dramatic fashion when Stewart's tank ran dry with less than two laps to go.
"I could not believe it," Bowyer said. "Then I thought I was gonna run out. It happened in the burnout, thank God."
Bowyer zoomed by to take the white flag, but the drama wasn't over. Did he have enough fuel to make it to the checkered flag and hold off Denny Hamlin?
"We knew he would run out before I would," Hamlin said. "I was going as hard as I could go."
It wasn't enough. Bowyer was fortunate where Stewart wasn't. And if anyone deserved good fortune on Sunday, it was Bowyer. He led 177 of 300 laps and had the dominant car most of the race.
"I hate it for Tony and I hate to win like that," Bowyer said. "But we've lost a few close ones like that, also. I just had a feeling today. This race felt like 2007, and we did it again."
Bowyer has been here before: Dead last coming in; a winner after Chase race No. 1.
The same thing happened in 2007 when he won at New Hampshire to shock the other Chasers and send a message that he meant business. Bowyer went on to finish third in the playoff, much better than most people expected.
Bowyer's win Sunday ended an 88-race losing streak and places him second in the Chase standings, only 35 points behind Hamlin.
Stewart would have been second if he could have coaxed another lap and a half out of his motor. Instead, he's 11th, 124 points back.
"We're not happy, that's for sure," Stewart said. "But we went down swinging. It's hard to lose that way, but it was fun to race Clint like that. Clint had the fastest car all day, but I'm proud of our guys. They said they ran me out of fuel, but I ran me out of fuel."
Stewart admits he pushed it hard to try to stay in front of Bowyer. Would he do it differently if he could do it over? "Yeah, I think I'd just settle for second if you know exactly what you have left," Stewart said. "But you never know. You're guessing. This is part of the sport and it always has been. That's what makes it exciting."
Bowyer said he wouldn't do it differently, which is easy to say now. But why did he risk it?
"You dominate the race, you owe it to yourself to try to win the race," Bowyer said. "When you start the Chase 12th, those are the chances you have to take to beat those guys."
Bowyer wanted to take a big chance and mash the throttle to try to catch Stewart with 40 laps to go, but crew chief Shane Wilson warned against it.
"I thought I could run him down, but Shane came on and said I needed to save some fuel," Bowyer said. "It's terrible. You want to go. But darn if [Stewart] didn't run out."
Four-time champion Jimmie Johnson didn't run out of gas Sunday, but he ran out of luck. After being involved in a wreck, Johnson finished 25th, worst among the Chase drivers. He falls from second to seventh in the standings.
It was Bowyer one week ago who said of Johnson: "Superman's cape is a little shorter now."
Maybe, but Johnson finished 39th here in 2006 before coming back to win his first Cup title.
That's good news for Stewart, who finished 24th on Sunday.
"So much can happen in nine races," Stewart said. "I can promise you this: The No. 14 Chevy team is not gonna give up."
If Stewart doesn't win his third Sprint Cup championship this year, he will remember this day as one of the darkest moments of his career.
If Bowyer wins his first Cup title, he's will see Sunday's gamble as a dramatic turning point in his racing life.
"It just as easily could have not worked out," Bowyer said. "But I'm damn glad it did."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
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