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Bowyer ready to put 2010 behind him

LOUDON, N.H. -- Legendary former Dodgers executive Branch Rickey called baseball "a game of inches."

Clint Bowyer learned the hard way this past fall that NASCAR is a game of millimeters.

Bowyer has returned to the scene of the crime, the place where his championship chances in 2010 went from excellent to all-but impossible because of a tiny infraction.

Bowyer won the Chase opener at New Hampshire in September one week after earning the final playoff spot with a sixth-place finish at Richmond.

He was on a roll, only to get rolled over by the NASCAR inspection police. The verdict for the car infraction was a whopping 150-point penalty plus a $150,000 fine and six-week suspension for crew chief Shane Wilson.

What did they do? Use a space-shuttle engine? Add a secret gas tank?

Well, um, no. The body of Bowyer's No. 33 Chevy was sitting improperly on the frame, not that anyone could tell with the naked eye or almost anything short of an electron microscope.

Team owner Richard Childress said he was told it was outside the tolerances by 60-thousandths of an inch. That's less than 2 millimeters.

An angry Bowyer held up a quarter one week later at Dover, saying it was less than the side-width of the coin.

Hey, a rule is a rule, but did the penalty fit the crime? Ten months later, Bowyer still doesn't think so.

"It was a bum deal," Bowyer said. "I truly believe that in my heart. We were warned, and we fixed that car to the best of our knowledge."

That's the key point here. One week earlier at Richmond, NASCAR officials told Bowyer's crew that the car was dangerously close to being illegal.

So when it came up outside the limits at New Hampshire (even though it was an eyelash off), NASCAR officials were not pleased.

You know, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, see ya.

NASCAR basically gave Bowyer and his team its version of the death penalty. Making up 150 points in the Chase, even with nine races to go, wasn't likely even under the old points system used last year.

But it still eats at Bowyer.

"The biggest thing I didn't understand about it, is the car passed postrace inspection [at the track]," Bowyer said at his hauler Friday. "Then it gets back to [NASCAR's R&D Center in North Carolina], and they do things that no one understands or knows much about.

"And the chassis isn't what won me that race. Tony Stewart running out of gas won me that race. A lot of people don't remember that, but I do."

Bowyer used a comparison of Kyle Busch's penalty this year when his car was one-sixteenth of an inch too low in a postrace inspection at Pocono after finishing third.

"He got a slap on the wrist, and we got a season-ending penalty," Bowyer said. "But it doesn't matter what I think."

Bowyer ended up 10th in the 2010 Chase, 467 points behind five-time champ Jimmie Johnson. So mathematically speaking, the penalty didn't make a difference in Bowyer winning the title.

However, it made a huge difference in where he finished overall. He would have ended up fifth. And who can say how his team would have run without the disappointment of knowing its Chase chances were over?

Bowyer finished 25th and 15th in the next two races after Loudon. His average finish in the five races after the penalty was 19.4. His average finish in the five races before the penalty was 6.2.

Bowyer won at Talladega in a photo finish with Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick in the sixth race after his penalty, but it was way too late.

"It took the wind out of my sails," Bowyer said about the penalty when he won at Talladega. "The two races after that whole mess, it was a disaster."

And the Talladega win came the week after Bowyer gave up his pit crew to Harvick, who still was contending for the title.

"Everybody wants to win," Harvick said. "I think what Clint and the 33 team did showed how badly they wanted the whole company to win."

Clint Bowyer It's a crucial time for us. I'm not worried about last year. I'm worried about overcoming last week.

-- Clint Bowyer

Bowyer always will have some "what if" questions run through his mind, but he has bigger concerns at the moment. Bowyer is back where he was last year at the midpoint of the season, outside the Chase cutoff.

Back-to-back bad results involving accidents -- 36th at Daytona and 34th at Kentucky -- have left Bowyer 12th in the standings, which isn't good enough in the new points system with the final two spots being wild cards based on victories.

"The biggest thing for us now is to get things turned around," Bowyer said. "It's a crucial time for us. I'm not worried about last year. I'm worried about overcoming last week."

Bowyer is winless in 2011, but two of his four career victories came on the 1-mile oval at New Hampshire.

"Loudon is a really good track for us," Bowyer said. "I don't know why, but it just kind of suits my driving style."

A victory on Sunday would place Bowyer back inside the Chase qualifiers with seven races to go before the playoff field is set.

The RCR boys need to make sure those car body measurements are set just right. Obviously, a couple of millimeters can change everything.

Bowyer looked at the positives from his victory in September.

"The trophy's in my house," Bowyer said. "And I aim to get another one here."

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 terry@blountspeak.com.