It doesn't take long to thin the field of championship contenders in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and some believe it has already been reduced to a three-driver race.
Clint Bowyer begs to differ.
Bowyer has had a pretty nice start to the Chase, finishing inside the top 10 in all three races. But it's not been enough in the points standings, where he is seemingly spinning his tires despite decent finishes. He is fourth in the standings, 25 points behind leader Brad Keselowski, but certain he's still in the title race. Why? Because Round 4 of the Chase is at Talladega Superspeedway, where Bowyer is the two-time defending race winner.
"This weekend is everything," Bowyer said Monday. "Talladega is the one that's going to make the difference."
Everybody considers Talladega the wild card of the 10-race Chase because the smallest mistake in a restrictor plate race can have devastating consequences.
Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson knows that all too well — he's yet to finish a plate race this season through no fault of his own. Johnson was collected in an accident on the second lap of the Daytona 500, suffered an engine failure at Talladega in the spring and was in yet another accident at Daytona in July.
Most title contenders are on pins and needles at Talladega, where they worry the championship can be lost because of another drivers' error.
Bowyer believes that's going to work to his advantage, especially with everyone assuming only Keselowski, Johnson and Denny Hamlin are left as viable title contenders.
"I'm going in there with the confidence of knowing I've won the last two, and I am a guy who needs a good run to get myself back in the championship," he said. "The other three are looking over their shoulder, knowing they can't get into trouble. But I'm going there to make a run at this thing.
"And it's not only me, but there's three or four behind me who could pull all of us back in the running."
Only 17 points separate Bowyer from Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr., who is eighth in points. Wedged between the MWR drivers is three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and five-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But it's so hard to make up significant ground in the Chase, as Jeff Gordon has shown the last two weeks. He opened the Chase ranked 12th and a wreck in the opener at Chicago cost him. Gordon has bounced back with a third-place finish and a second-place finish the last two weeks, but he's still 10th in the standings.
That's why Bowyer believes Talladega is so critical. He thinks any trouble for the top three drivers opens the door for everyone else.
"If you win Talladega, it doesn't matter what has already happened, you are going to put yourself right back in it," he said.
On paper, he'd be the pick for Sunday.
Bowyer has two wins and is the only driver to finish inside the top 10 in his last five Talladega starts. He's scored a series-best 465 points in that span, and his 3.4 average finish is also tops. Bowyer has led 82 laps, second only to Matt Kenseth's 116.
But the racing is different now that NASCAR has set rules designed to eliminate the two-car tandem drafting that Bowyer has mastered. And, he won his races with Chevrolet horsepower driving for Richard Childress Racing, and he's still adapting in his first season with MWR and Toyota engines.
He was debating Talladega strategy hours after Sunday's ninth-place finish at Dover, and said how he races will depend on how he qualifies. A poor qualifying run, for example, would start Bowyer deep in the field and the best strategy would be to hang back to avoid an early accident.
Problems on Sunday — and he expects more than a few Chase drivers to have some — could thin the field even more.
"You know, Darrell Waltrip said it best, he said each week there's another team that takes themselves out of the championship hunt until there's just a couple left," Bowyer said. "Nobody has gone out there yet and taken control, everybody stubs their toe and takes themselves out of it one at a time. Talladega is going to be a place where that happens, and it's my chance to capitalize when it happens."