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RICHMOND, Va. – A broken shifter last week at Atlanta has put Clint Bowyer in desperation mode at Richmond, where a victory on Saturday night is his best shot to grab a dramatic, last-gasp berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The broken part was a devastating blow to Bowyer, who lost two spots in the standings and fell behind Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle in the jockeying for the final two spots in the 16-driver Chase field. Under NASCAR's new win-and-in system, 17 different drivers can race their way into the Chase in the final "regular season" event.
Bowyer, a two-time winner at Richmond International Raceway, isn't counting himself out.
"If I could ever pick a track that I had to go to that I had to try to fight my way into this Chase, it's this one," Bowyer said. "This is one of my best tracks. I love this place and love racing here and competing here. Hopefully, she'll be good to me one more time."
Newman is the only driver in control of his fate and can clinch a spot in the Chase if he finishes 18th or better if there is a first-time winner this season that is not Matt Kenseth. Biffle needs to see a repeat winner, or Newman or Kenseth, and finish of 22nd or better.
But he expects a tough challenge from Bowyer, the Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson, and Paul Menard. Those drivers view Saturday night as "their last lunge for life to get in," Biffle said.
"Whether it is staying out and taking two tires or whatever, getting up there and blocking or running a guy out of the groove, they will do whatever they can to win to get into the Chase," he said. "We hope it is uneventful and one of the guys that have won already wins it, but I know that it is going to be dicey up front with those guys trying to get their win."
Newman also believes Saturday night could be chaotic as desperate drivers try to grab a Chase berth. Among those who need to win are Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. Stewart returned to racing last weekend at Atlanta after sitting out three events since his sprint car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. at an Aug. 9 dirt track race in New York. NASCAR gave the three-time champion a waiver that will allow him to participate in the Chase should he qualify.
Newman doesn't think there will be any hijinks among the drivers needing a big night Saturday because of the scandal that plagued this race a year ago. Newman was on his way to the victory when Bowyer spun to bring out a caution, setting in motion a series of events that knocked Newman out of the Chase in favor of Truex, who was Bowyer's teammate at the time.
Also affected in the shenanigans was Jeff Gordon, who was not in the Chase field when he left Richmond.
NASCAR, in ruling that Michael Waltrip Racing manipulated the finish of the race, kicked Truex out of the Chase field and replaced him with Newman. Then, two days before the Chase opener, Gordon was added to the field as an additional driver.
Newman said he'd be naive to not be concerned about aggressive driving, but thinks teams won't dare try anything sinister.
"I think after what happened last year, the magnifying glasses are getting a little bit tighter than they used to be and that we'll have a good race," Newman said.
Bowyer, a year after the scandal, wasn't interested Friday in revisiting the spin that turned NASCAR upside down a year ago. No matter what happens Saturday night, he vowed to go home and have a good week. He cited the upcoming birth of his first child and his future in NASCAR as things to look forward to.
"You never want to create a storm in any sport or for anybody, for any of your peers, your friends, your family, hell, for yourself," Bowyer said. "Do you think I wanted to be in the middle of all that mess? It was a year ago. . Why you (in the media) choose to be hung up on things that happened a year ago is beyond me. I'm here out of desperation to try to race my way in."