By now, you know what happened in Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Clint Bowyer, tied for the Chase cellar with 2010’s other non-winning playoff participants heading into the Loudon race, led 177 laps and grabbed the top spot from Tony Stewart’s sputtering No. 14 Chevy as the white flag flew – the consequence of leaders all stretching their fuel to the checkered flag. Bowyer’s third career win now marks the second time the Emporia, Kan. native has led off the Chase with a victory, just as he did at NHMS in 2007. But does a win leading off NASCAR’s postseason mean all that much in the 10-race run to Homestead in November? The numbers say that past September NHMS winners (all of which were eventual title contenders) trend toward good Chase finishes, sure… but not necessarily the championship.
“Big Mo” is a popular talking point often applied to winners at both the Richmond race heading into the Chase and races at NHMS leading off the playoffs. The ultimate Chase-momentum starter was Kurt Busch’s victory at the Magic Mile in 2004, the inaugural season for the current format. That win would be Busch’s only one inside the 10-race playoff, but set the tone for consistent finishes that led to his capturing the championship at Homestead. Since then, no other Sprint Cup titlist has won the fall New Hampshire race. In fact, they’ve averaged only a ninth-place finish at New Hampshire’s Chase race in the year they captured their crowns.
However, there is no doubt that momentum is on Bowyer’s side for now, and there also is a sizable chance that it will carry on at least a few more races. To this point, other NHMS winners have fared well in the Chase. Ryan Newman won in 2005 and finished sixth in points. Kevin Harvick’s ’06 win primed the No. 29 team for a fourth-place points finish in a breakout year for RCR. Bowyer’s ’07 win was the first of a line of consistency that kept his No. 07 team darkhorse title favorites until season’s end; Bowyer finished third in points in that sophomore season.
Greg Biffle ignited the biggest wave of momentum to start the Chase, winning both the ’08 NHMS and Dover races. Biffle held his ground in a dominant year for Roush Fenway Racing, before seeing his title hopes dashed in the Big One at Talladega. Mark Martin’s 2009 NHMS Chase-starting win and fifth of the season turned many heads, as Martin demonstrated he could run up front in his No. 5 Chevy most of the season. But ending three-time defending Sprint Cup champ and teammate Jimmie Johnson’s quest for four straight would come up short, as the No. 48 team would light fire and coast to another Cup triumph.
What’s perhaps most compelling about this week’s win is that Bowyer’s team has been an afterthought for much of the 2010 season. The No. 33 often has run in the top 15, been toward the back of the Chase cutoff line, and not led many laps. At last Saturday’s Richmond race, though, things began to turn around as Bowyer’s team excelled under pressure, spent time at the front and ended the night in sixth. Combine that effort with Sunday’s dominant New Hampshire run and Bowyer’s team is proving that it suddenly can knock off some of the season’s more regular heavy hitters.
But to capture the Cup, Bowyer will have to continue his resurgence at the Chase’s final nine tracks. Bowyer’s career average finish at Dover, Kansas, Auto Club Speedway in California, Charlotte, Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead is 14.83. Average his win Sunday at New Hampshire with his average finishes at those tracks and the stat increases a bit to 13.43. These are decent numbers, sure, but how do they stack up against previous Chase champs?
Chase wins: Avg. Chase finish:
Kurt Busch, 2004 (One, 8.9)
Tony Stewart, 2005 (Zero, 8.7)
Jimmie Johnson, 2006 (One, 10.8)
Jimmie Johnson, 2007 (Four, 5.0)
Jimmie Johnson, 2008 (Three, 5.7)
Jimmie Johnson, 2009 (Four, 6.8)
These numbers don’t bode well for Bowyer. True, Clint is good for a few top 10s and top fives, certainly, especially if his team remains this dialed in. But runs of seventh place week in and week out are not going to erase a nearly inevitable bad finish that snakebites each Chase champ at least once. Maintaining low-top 10 runs are also not likely to leapfrog Bowyer ahead of the powerhouse teams of the favorites, Johnson and Denny Hamlin, armed with their inevitable strong runs that will come over the next nine weeks we have remaining. Clearly, Bowyer made a statement in New Hampshire Sunday – but running well on a track that is quite unlike any other in the Chase is not a strong indication that he will be the man to beat come November.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m. (or whenever the Georgia Bulldogs are not playing) and daily as a traffic reporter on AM-750 and NOW 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com and is co-track announcer at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga.