Clint Bowyer vowed to use the Chase for the championship to raise his Nextel Cup profile. One race in, and Bowyer is NASCAR's newest race winner.
Bowyer raced to his first Nextel Cup victory Sunday, starting from the pole and leading all 221 of the 300 laps to win at New Hampshire International Speedway.
Bowyer entered the 12-driver Chase as the only contender without a victory, and had never finished higher than third in his short Cup career. But he's inched closer and closer to the front of the field, and thought he had a chance at a win last week in Richmond but spun his Chevrolet as he was making a pass for the lead.
It brought him into the Chase opener as the 12th seed, trailing defending series champion Jimmie Johnson by 60 points and acutely aware of his ranking.
"Thanks for reminding me," was his response every time he was asked about his winless streak.
Now, he'll never hear it again.
"This proves we earned a spot and we're here for a reason and just so happy to be a part of the Chase," Bowyer said. "It's such a neat deal and, hey, this is the Nextel Cup, baby."
Bowyer easily beat Jeff Gordon to the finish line, but struggled through the final 50 laps as his car tightened. He grew increasingly frustrated with lapped traffic, and the setting sun made it difficult to see at times.
But his Richard Childress Racing team urged him to relax, and the 28-year-old Kansas native calmly made it to the finish — beating Gordon by more than six seconds.
"I'm not going to kid you, I was about to throw up on those last 30 laps," Bowyer said in Victory Lane.
"What was funny, I was starting to feel a vibration but I don't know what it was. It was just you hear every rattle, banging and everybody racing — I was watching up ahead hoping, praying that nobody crashed. So thankfully the cautions didn't come and we kept it out front."
Gordon, the four-time series champion, finished second and was followed by two-time series champion Tony Stewart. Kyle Busch was fourth and followed by Martin Truex Jr., Johnson and Matt Kenseth as Chase drivers took the top seven spots.
Casey Mears was eighth, followed by Ryan Newman and J.J. Yeley.
The Chase opener wasn't so kind to Carl Edwards (12th), Denny Hamlin (15th), Kevin Harvick (17th), Jeff Burton (18th) and Kurt Busch (25th). Although they were all running at the end, it's going to take top-10 finishes to decide this championship, and the competition is off to a tremendous headstart.
Johnson and Gordon are tied for the points lead, and Stewart is just 10 points back. Bowyer moved up eight spots into fourth place, only 15 points out. Kyle Busch jumped four spots to fifth and is 35 points behind. Truex is sixth, 40 points back and Kenseth is seventh.
Edwards dropped four spots to eighth, and Hamlin fell three spots to ninth. Harvick is 10th. Burton 11th and Kurt Busch plummeted seven spots to 12th.
But the day belonged to Bowyer, who had only led 196 laps in his career and, as one of two newcomers to the championship field, wasn't really considered a contender. By blowing away the field, he changed that.
"If you are going to win the first one of the year, that's the time to do it," Gordon said. "I think everybody is happy for Clint. When we were up in New York, it seemed like everyone was like `Clint Bowyer, he doesn't have a shot at the championship.'
"I think today was a real statement for him and I think it just proves that anybody in the top 12 can win this championship."