It’s easy to poke fun at NASCAR’s ‘Chase for the Cup’ but the championship play-off among the year’s top 12 drivers – run over the final 10 of 36 races – can certainly shake up the status quo. The point was made in last weekend’s opening round of the Chase at the one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Clint Bowyer led most of the race and came through to win after leader Tony Stewart ran out of fuel. Bowyer was the 12th and final qualifier for this year’s Chase, but his New Hampshire win vaulted him to second in the points behind Denny Hamlin.
Bowyer was the man to beat on Sunday, leading 177 of 300 laps, only to be stuck in second place behind Stewart towards the end as both drivers struggled to save fuel. But Stewart’s engine stuttered and died on the penultimate lap allowing Bowyer to sweep through and score his first Sprint Cup victory in 88 starts going back to the spring of 2008. Bowyer, 31, drives for Richard Childress’s three-car Chevrolet team, for whom he has raced since joining NASCAR’s top league in 2005. A dark horse going into the Chase, Bowyer has suddenly emerged as a championship contender.
Bowyer, from Kansas in the heart of America’s vast Midwest, won NASCAR’s second-division Nationwide championship in 2008. His best season to date came in ’07 when he finished third in the points, while Childress’s team has not won the Sprint Cup since Dale Earnhardt took the last of his seven titles with RCR back in 1994. NASCAR legend Earnhardt won six of his seven championships with Childress’s team.
Denny Hamlin, winner of a series high six races this year, finished a strong second in New Hampshire and leads the championship by 35 points from Bowyer. Third in the championship at this stage is Kevin Harvick, who was fifth in New Hampshire in another Childress Chevrolet. Defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson had a bad race, finishing two laps down in 25th place after damaging his car in a mid-race multi-car collision.
Meanwhile, Dario Franchitti continued to chisel into Will Power’s IndyCar points lead as he beat Power at the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi oval in Japan. Hélio Castoneves, who qualified on pole, led most of the race to score his third win of the season and the ninth this year for Team Penske. Championship leader Power came through to finish third for his best oval track result of the year after running fourth or fifth for most of the race.
Franchitti drove a strong race in Japan, moving up from fourth on the grid to finish second and close the gap to Penske driver Power to just 12 points with one race remaining. The IndyCar season comes to a close with a Saturday night race on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami oval on October 2, with everything to play for between Power and Franchitti.