CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There's a swagger and style about Clint Bowyer that should put him high on the list of NASCAR's most likable drivers.
But with just three Sprint Cup wins on his resume, he hasn't put up the performances needed to capture widespread attention.
That could be on the verge of changing.
Bowyer's win Sunday in the opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship was a breath of fresh air to a NASCAR fan base weary of Jimmie Johnson's four-year reign of dominance. A blue-collar racer who rose through the ranks of Midwest short track racing, Bowyer so far has resisted being molded into a polished corporate pitchman.
So as Bowyer celebrated his victory with his Richard Childress Racing crew, vice president of competition Mike Dillon pointed out to the boss just how big the win could be for the entire sport.
"He came over to me in the winner's circle and said, 'This is the best thing for NASCAR. We need somebody like Clint Bowyer winning races and running for this championship,'" team owner Richard Childress recalled. "He came from the short tracks, the dirt tracks. He's worked and he's earned his way to where he is today. He's very fan friendly. The fans love him.
"It's what I think NASCAR needs, a new type of hero."
It's just one round into the 10-race Chase, but NASCAR had to have been pleased with Sunday's show.
The race was full of twists and turns for the championship contenders, who all insisted the championship couldn't be won at New Hampshire but it most certainly could be lost. A poor finish in the opener could derail the title hopes of an entire team, and a decent day, well, that could hurdle a driver into the heart of the battle.
It's what happened to Bowyer, who slid into the 12-driver field as the final seed. Then his win jettisoned him up to second in the standings, just 35 points back of leader Denny Hamlin. He had a similar fate in 2007, when he grabbed his first career victory in the Chase opener and rode the momentum to a career-best third-place finish in the standings.
Now, in a season of resurgence for an RCR team that struggled to keep pace with NASCAR's heavyweights last year, Bowyer could make a similar run.
"I really feel like, why not us?" Bowyer crew chief Shane Wilson said. "Jimmie Johnson is good, but he's won four in a row. The last four or five weeks, we've been right there with him. He's not that much better than us. We can do it, and why not us?"
Several teams had the same thoughts as they left New Hampshire stacked in a wide-open field for the championship.
Johnson had an uncharacteristically bad day, surviving a spin only to fall victim to a loose wheel. He had to pit under green, couldn't catch a caution and finished 25th, lowest among the Chase drivers. Although he dropped to seventh in the standings, all may not be lost for the champion: Since the Chase began in 2004, the champion has finished sixth or better at New Hampshire every year but once, in 2006, when Johnson finished 39th but rallied to win the first of his four titles.
He heads to Dover this weekend thinking about another rally, but Tony Stewart may not have the same confidence.
Stewart took the lead from Bowyer late in Sunday's race, but as both drivers tried to stretch their final tank of gas a daunting 92 laps, Stewart failed to conserve enough fuel to make it to the finish.
Instead of winning, he finished 24th and dropped to 11th in the standings.
Now he's got to hope everyone in front of him has at least one slip over the remaining nine races, and after watching some of the comebacks Sunday, it may not happen for Stewart.
Take Hamlin, for example. He was running fourth when he was spun by Carl Edwards and fell to 22nd after a quick pit stop for repairs. Livid over the radio, he calmed down enough to slowly work his way back through the field.
Had the race gone just one more lap, he likely would have beat Bowyer. Instead, he settled for second and maintained his lead in the standings.
Then there was Kevin Harvick, the points leader most of the regular season and Bowyer's teammate at RCR. A poor first pit stop put him in the hole, and it didn't seem to get much better over the next several trips down pit road.
Yet he somehow stole a fifth-place finish, and that ability to salvage a bad day has got to have everyone worried.
Same goes for Kyle Busch, who nearly melted down over the radio before he was reigned in by crew chief Dave Rogers, who essentially told him to shut up and drive. When it was over, he was ninth and still in the thick of the title race.
They're all gunning for Johnson, and Bowyer believes everyone — himself included — has a shot.
"He's still the guy everybody is chasing. You'd have to be a fool not to think he's not going to be the one down to the wire you're going to be racing for this thing," he said. "But I have to tell you, this is as strong, since I've been in the sport, this is as strong a Chase as ever."