Bowyer felt he belonged in Chase, but now he has proved it

LOUDON, N.H. -- Clint Bowyer was a bit fidgety on Thursday as he waited in the lobby of Fox television's New York City high-rise for an appearance on the network's morning show.

"I feel so out of place here," he told fellow drivers Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

The Emporia, Kan., native might be out of place in the Big Apple, where he traded his blue jeans and T-shirt for a coat and tie, but he's not out of place in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

The only driver of the 12 without a victory entering this 10-race playoff, Bowyer took care of that and jumped from last to fourth in the standings with a dominating performance Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway.

He led a race-high 222 laps, which was 26 more than he had led in the first 63 races of his Cup career, which began in 2006.

The only thing missing in Victory Lane was his car -- at least temporarily because Bowyer blew the engine during his burnout -- plus team owner Richard Childress, who was hunting in Mongolia.

"It was very different walking into Victory Lane," Bowyer said. "I've never done that before."

He'd never walked into Victory Lane in a Cup race, period, unless it was to congratulate somebody else. This time, he was the one receiving accolades as everybody from NASCAR President Mike Helton to former champions Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart stopped by.

Bowyer soaked it in like a kid at Christmas.

"Those are people you look up to," he said. "Those are guys you wanted to be like three or four years ago. I never would have dreamed I would be able to race like them.

"I have a lot of respect for those guys. To see them have respect for me feels pretty good."

The win didn't come without nervous moments, although most of them were self-induced. Bowyer complained about everything from a tight car to lapped traffic to the bright sun over the final 50 laps.

"Calm down" and "Stay focused" became regular parts of spotter Mike Dillon's vocabulary.

Kevin Harvick, who won this race a year ago to take the points lead, at one point radioed Dillon to have his Richard Childress Racing teammate slow down.

"Clint's just new at it," Dillon said. "He's so damn good, so fast. Everywhere he's been, he's been fast. We've just got to get the mental part of it down where it's going to be fun."

Bowyer wasn't having fun down the stretch. He was afraid of throwing away the victory as he believed he had done the week before at Richmond and facing the same old questions about why he hadn't won.

"Every time we get close, we make a mistake and just come up short," he said. "It's frustrating. But it is what it is. And they were right. We hadn't won a race. We were the only ones in the Chase that hadn't.

"Can't say that anymore."

Now, you can say Bowyer is a serious contender for the championship. He went from 60 points behind first place to 15 behind points leaders Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

"We've got a legitimate shot at this," said Bowyer, smiling wider than a Kansas prairie. "Not to say we didn't [before]. This just opened your eyes. It opened a lot of people's eyes."

It might have done so to the rest of the world, but not to those on his No. 07 team who have watched him adjust from dirt track racing to pavement in three short years.

"His experience level is probably the least amount in the garage when you think about asphalt racing and everything he's done," Dillon said. "But his talent level is in the top five, I'd say.

"Once his experience catches up, he's going to be hard to guard in another five years or so."

Bowyer might be hard to guard the remainder of the Chase. He has the nothing-to-lose attitude that makes him dangerous.

Then again, Bowyer always is that way.

"That's why we're a dark horse in this Chase," Dillon said. "He lives for the day or the moment. He doesn't see how big a picture this was. … He's going to be tough in this deal because of that. If he's got an opportunity in the last race, he could do it."

Bowyer never was a threat to lose this one. He knew he had a fast car the moment he hit the first turn.

"It just had that feeling you need," he said.

Bowyer had a 3.5-second lead over second-place Kyle Busch when Busch pitted with 75 laps remaining.

"You've got 10 laps before you pit and a whole straightaway lead on second," said Dillon, trying to reassure his driver.

When Bowyer finally pitted with 64 laps remaining, he nervously said there was a long way to go.

"Be the last time we see you, bud," Dillon said.

Bowyer fell to 11th, but he was back in first with 48 laps to go as the rest of the field cycled through stops.

"Focus, focus," Dillon said. "Remember what we talked about today. … Drive away."

Every time we get close, we make a mistake and just come up short. It's frustrating. But it is what it is. And they were right. We hadn't won a race. We were the only ones in the Chase that hadn't. Can't say that anymore.

Clint Bowyer

Bowyer did.

Ten laps later, he had a 5.1-second lead over second-place Gordon.

But Bowyer wasn't happy.

"I'm telling you, I'm way too tight!" he screamed over his radio.

With 28 laps remaining, Bowyer's lead had been trimmed to 3.4 seconds. Dillon told his driver to remain calm and stay focused and the car would come back to him.

He was right.

A few laps later, the lead was back to 4.5 seconds as Bowyer turned the Chase opener into a snore. He won by more than six seconds, the equivalent of more than half a straightaway on this track shaped like a paper clip.

"He was so tight, and he was three-tenths quicker than Gordon running second," Dillon said. "I was, 'Why don't you just slow down a little bit and let that right front tire grip a little more?'

"He's always been that way. He's going to push it. He pushes it to the edge. We've just got to figure out how to get to that point and back it up just enough to outrun them."

Before Sunday, Bowyer's best Cup finish had been third at California last year and Bristol four races ago. He made it to the Chase on consistency, recording 12 top-10s and being one of only two drivers in this playoff with no DNFs.

"Even without the win, I definitely believe we earned a spot in this Chase and belong here," Bowyer said. "We did the things to be in this Chase. Once we get in the Chase, you've got to go for broke,"

Bowyer was much more loose and comfortable than he had been in New York. He definitely didn't look out of place as he stood on the door of his car, arms raised and fists balled tight, while teammates sprayed beer and champagne on him.

"That's exactly what this team needed was a win," he said. "We needed to get that cocky attitude. The elite group of teams have that. They have confidence going into the weekend they're going to run good."

Now, Bowyer heads to Dover hoping to build on that momentum the way he watched Truex build on his first win earlier this season. He'd like to be in the same car.

"I'll be at the shop waxing it," Bowyer said.

He won't feel out of place doing that, for sure.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.