By The Associated Press
LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Clint Bowyer put the trophy from last year’s victory at New Hampshire in his house.
The rest of his memories from that weekend, well, they’re not so good.
Bowyer’s winning car in the Chase opener flunked inspection and NASCAR levied crippling penalties that ended his Sprint Cup championship hopes days after he had positioned himself as a top contender.
The 150-point penalty from his September infraction was so devastating that not even another Chase race victory at Talladega could budge him out of last place in the 12-driver field.
But that trying episode is far from Bowyer’s focus in his New Hampshire return this weekend — even as he’s pestered with reminders of his fantastic-to-flop tale.
Bowyer is stuck in 12th place again, a spot that, thanks to NASCAR’s revamped points system, puts him outside the Chase field.
“This is a crucial time for us,” Bowyer said. “We’re still within reaching distance of the cars in front of us, so this is a good time to get things pointed back in the right direction points-wise.”
There are eight races remaining until the Chase field is set, giving Bowyer time to make a move.
For 10 races, Bowyer was inside the top 10 and a string of five straight top-10 finishes made it look as if he put the crushing end to last year behind him and was poised to stay in contention. But consecutive poor finishes (36th at Daytona, 35th last week at Kentucky) knocked him out of the Chase field and behind 11th-place driver Tony Stewart.
Like any slumping driver, Bowyer and his Richard Childress Racing team have huddled at the shop for solutions.
“Everybody across the board, driver, crew chief, the pit crew, over the wall guys; it can very easily become a negative and spiral out of control,” Bowyer said. “But there are so many positives about our season. We’ve run well and that’s what has put us in this situation.”
The 32-year-old Bowyer, who is eligible for free agency at the end of this season, hits a milestone Sunday when he makes his 200th career Cup start. He’s led more than 400 laps at New Hampshire and has two wins.
“He just has a kind of unique feel and setup for this particular race track as to what he likes in the car,” RCR teammate Kevin Harvick said.
It’s the car that got him in trouble last year.
He entered the race as the last seed in the field, then led a race-high 177 laps and stretched his final tank of gas 92 laps to win the race when Stewart ran out of fuel right before the final lap. The victory snapped an 88-race winless streak for Bowyer.
His celebration seemed to last only slightly longer than the race. NASCAR said the No. 33 Chevrolet had been altered and did not meet its strict specifications.
Bowyer was penalized 150 points. NASCAR also fined crew chief Shane Wilson $150,000, and suspended him for six Cup races. Car chief Chad Haney also was suspended for six races, and Childress was docked 150 owner points.
When he rolled into Dover the next week, Bowyer gave a defiant defense of his team. Other drivers openly mocked his excuse — that a wrecker hit the rear bumper when it pushed the car into the winner’s circle — and the penalties clearly tarnished his victory.
Bowyer again stuck up for his team this weekend at New Hampshire and insisted the incident was behind him.
He just didn’t understand the process NASCAR put his car through that struck him with the severe penalties.
“The biggest thing that I don’t understand about it is, that it passed post-race inspection and it gets back to something that nobody understands or knows a lot about; which is fine,” he said. “I was OK. A penalty is a penalty and if you’re caught, you’re caught. It doesn’t matter what I think at the end of the day.”
So now it’s about cracking the top 10. Those spots are guaranteed. There are two more wild-card spots reserved for drivers from 11 to 20 with the most victories. Bowyer is winless this season, so inching up to two spots is huge.
“With this crazy wild-card thing, this is a good track for us to get a win and solidify ourselves in the Chase,” he said. “So it’s an important weekend.”
Dan Gelston can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APgelston