Will Dega, Bowyer shake up Chase?
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Clint Bowyer arrived here Friday knowing and loving exactly where he is -- in beautiful position to be the benefactor of the annual autumn scrambling of Chase points at Talladega Superspeedway.
"I've got to make up some ground, and this is the one track where I can make up a lot of ground on those guys," said Bowyer, who is fourth in the standings, 25 points behind leader Brad Keselowski, 20 behind Jimmie Johnson and nine behind Denny Hamlin.
At the hardest place in NASCAR to pick a winner, Bowyer has won the past two October races. So, rather than coming in dreading the place, rather than merely hoping to get out of here without disaster, "I love racing here," Bowyer said. "It's so much fun."
Last year, he won as a non-Chaser. Now, "This can be a game-changer," he said. "This is one of the tracks that can separate somebody and possibly win you a championship.
"It seems like each and every week these first few, it's just been a point or two here, a point or two there," Bowyer continued. "This is one that can swing 20, 30 points and take you out of the running or push you into it."
Because the current scoring system boils down to roughly one point per position in each race, Bowyer could easily be catapulted to the top of the standings should the three drivers ahead of him wreck out -- which of course is a possibility every moment here -- especially before halfway in Sunday's 500-miler (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Or they could guess wrong about where to ride out most of the race. In recent years, some drivers have chosen to lie back for the first 400 miles and give themselves reasonable chances at avoiding wrecks in the middle of the pack. But sometimes they get caught at the back and can't move far enough forward at the end.
Is Keselowski concerned about a game-changer?
"Concern is a strong word," he said. "I'm open-minded that anything can happen here, for good or bad."
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Keselowski did, after all, win the spring race here, and so, "We could very well leave here with a bigger points lead, as well as we could leave here with losing it and being quite a few markers back," he said. "I'm going to just focus on controlling what I can control -- which isn't a lot. But I still have some control to try to be the guy who doesn't put himself in a bad situation "
Staying out of the bad situations usually involves making a judgment call whether to lag behind for most of the race or run up front as much as possible and keep the wrecks in the rearview mirror.
Bowyer's modus operandi here has been to run up front as early and as much as possible, but, "It just depends," he said. "If you're up front starting the race, you want to stay up there. If not, you don't want to be wiped out of this thing before halfway or even three-quarters of the way through. You've got to be able to get yourself to the end of this thing, then get yourself in position."
And then at the end, said Tony Stewart, fifth in points and winner of the most recent restrictor-plate race, at Daytona in July, "You're pretty much calling an audible the whole way around."
Although the crapshoot nature of plate racing here has long called into question whether the Chase should have a Talladega component at all, Bowyer thinks it's vital to the overall show of NASCAR's playoffs.
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"I think this track is the reason why everybody in the Chase is still in it," he said. "This is the only track that all of us can get wiped out or maybe all of us but one or two. Maybe the 12th guy [currently Matt Kenseth] can be the only one who doesn't get taken out and, if he does, he comes out with a whole new outlook, 10 or 15 points out of the lead and all of a sudden it has changed the look of things
"This is a dangerous wild-card race for the Chase," Bowyer continued, "and you've just got to go out there and be as careful as you can, and also be as aggressive as you can, and try to get yourself in the situation to win this thing."
Bowyer has done precisely that, for two consecutive October races at Talladega. A third, plus some misfortune or miscalculation on the part of the three points leaders, could put his Michael Waltrip Racing team -- which is in the Chase for the first time -- at the top of the standings for the first time ever.
"It would be unbelievable to think about being champions together our first year together," Bowyer said.
Coming out on top of the annual Talladega Chase scramble could make that pretty believable.
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