Clint Bowyer is in an enviable position.
Since he was on the bubble before NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Bowyer was never under the spotlight such as Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin or his Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick were.
For Bowyer, entering the Chase off the radar is a distinct advantage.
"What I am looking most forward to is being the underdog and being that afterthought," Bowyer said. "Everybody puts the pressure...I mean, did you hear how many questions Jimmie Johnson just answered? And that was all pressure-related. How are you going to handle the pressure? What are you going to do this time to win your fifth championship?
"My teammate, Kevin Harvick -- I was in New York listening to him answer those same exact questions because of the way he has run all season long for 26 races. We haven't answered one of them. The only thing you guys want to know from us is how do you think you can do. That is great. It reminds me a lot of 2007. The same scenario. We came and won the first race and kind of set the tempo for the Chase and for our race team as well. I hope that I can back that up."
Bowyer, 31, started the 2007 Chase off with a bang by winning the New Hampshire race from the pole position in his first attempt in the segment. Bowyer averaged a 6.4 finish over the first seven Chase races, which solidified his career-best third-place standing at the end of the season.
Bowyer believes his current team can "run at that level" again.
"I think our cars are good enough too," Bowyer said. "Probably better than they were. We've got some room to improve and we need to improve if we are going to win a championship and compete with these guys for 10 races.
"The way our cars have run all year, Kevin has done a good job of showing our potential at RCR. If we can match that for 10 races like he has for 26, somebody at RCR should win."
Over the final eight races of the regular season, Bowyer held off charges from formidable opponents -- Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya -- to hold onto 12th place. The team's only moment of vulnerability came at Watkins Glen where he started 34th and climbed into the top 15 before a trailing arm mount broke off the No. 33's chassis. Bowyer returned to competition three laps down in 36th place. With two free-pass beneficiaries, he finished 32nd and fell to 13th in the standings, but returned to 12th the following week with a strong run at Michigan.
While some teams would be spent after pushing that vigorously to secure the final spot in the Chase, that's not the case for Bowyer. With the point standings shuffled for the final 10 races, Bowyer is currently just 60 points out of first place.
Erasing that deficit is a strong motivation for Bowyer and the No. 33 team.
"It wasn't like we weren't prepared," Bowyer said. "It's not like you work so hard to get in the Chase and you're fizzled. Everybody's excited. ... This is a whole rejuvenation for our race team. Just the sheer excitement of being in the Chase is worth something.
"And then if you go back and look at our record, my record even before these 10 races, these are good race tracks for us. We've never finished outside the top five when we've been in the Chase. Go back and look at last season even when we weren't in the Chase, those 10 races were my best races of the year. And I think we can improve, for sure, off of where we're at right now."
Bowyer's Secret Weapon
Clint Bowyer admires the way the No. 33 crew has performed since they're just enjoying their second season together. Although Bowyer didn't want to single out one person on the squad, he acknowledged the dedication of team engineer Steve Hoegler.
"They've really come together and made a good team," Bowyer said. "Steve Hoegler, our engineer, is very good, very young and very hungry. He's worked his butt off and become a student of the sport big time. He's made a lot of gains for us over the last year and ... that's a great asset."
Hoegler, 31, earned his mechanical engineering degree from Ohio University. For his first six years in NASCAR he worked at Petty Enterprises and Hall of Fame Racing. The Cleveland native joined RCR two seasons ago and currently complements crew chief Shane Wilson on the No. 33 team.
"My contribution to the car starts from ground zero," Hoegler said. "I pretty much make all the build sheets and set-up sheets -- Shane and I work together on that to keep the shop flow going. I try to have them ready a month out so the guys in the suspension shop know what parts and pieces to put on the cars, what housings, what lowers, uppers, swaybar geometries -- everything. How the cars get bolted together, every part that goes on the car is on the build sheet. The set-up sheet is picking the springs and the shocks, wedge and nose weight. The build sheets are the hard parts. The set-up parameters are what we sling in and out of the garage all during practice.
"Shane and I have a really good working relationship. We have a lot of respect for each other's thought processes. He has the ultimate call on everything, I just give my suggestions. Most of my suggestions come from simulations. RCR is pretty strong on our simulation. We spend a lot of time and money and resources on simulation. We use it a lot to set up our cars and Shane leans on me a lot for that."
Hoegler jokes that his engineering degree could have led him in a variety of fields, but the competitive nature of racing pulled him in.
"I want to win," Hoegler said. "This is my eighth season now and I haven't gotten to win yet. (laughs) We've been close."