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Controversy fading, Bowyer goes full speed ahead into NHMS

  • Driver Clint Bowyer walks to his garage during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

    Driver Clint Bowyer walks to his garage during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Driver Clint Bowyer walks to his garage during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

    Driver Clint Bowyer walks to his garage during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Driver Clint Bowyer walks to his garage during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
  • Driver Clint Bowyer walks to his garage during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

There’s no shaking Clint Bowyer’s swagger at this point in the season. Make no mistake, though, this year has tried.

There’s the zero in the win column that provides a troubling caveat to what’s been a year of consistency and reliability. There are the bouts of bad luck, whether on the track or under his hood, that have often derailed him when he’s battled his way into the lead.

And, most notably, there have been the last two weeks. A suspicious spinout in Richmond in the final race of the season temporarily helped get

teammate Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase, making Bowyer and his team, Michael Waltrip Racing, the face of NASCAR’s massive credibility fiasco. They’ve become synonymous with scandal, and though he’s mostly dodged the questions that have come in non-stop, Bowyer’s smile and trademark colorful personality haven’t diminished.

There’s still a Chase to run, after all. And he likes his chances.

“I think we’re doing the things it takes, that I think it takes, to win a championship,” said Bowyer, who’s ninth in the Chase points. “We’re coming to the good part of the season for me. Most of my wins have all come within those Chase races at the end of the year. I feel confident that we can get a win or two or more by the end of the season, and if we can do that inside the Chase, I think we can make some noise for the championship like we did last year.”

Last year saw Bowyer finish second by the end of the playoff run, and he was second entering the final race of the regular season this year. The similarities don’t end there. He entered the Chase this year with eight top-fives, compared to six from last year, and his top-10s after the regular season (13, compared to 15 in 2012) are also close.

Bowyer won two regular-season races and three overall last year, however, and though he’s led six races this season, his attempts to make it back to victory lane this year have been met with misfortune that has bordered on the bizarre. He led 114 laps at the first race in Richmond in May but was beaten at the end by a furious sprint from Kevin Harvick, who made up six spots over the final two laps. He got hit and spun out by a car a lap down while in the lead in the August race at Bristol. And he was leading the next race in Atlanta when his engine blew, causing him to sink to 39th.

They’re the kind of mishaps that can trigger doubts, causing a driver having a good year to wonder if a great one simply isn’t meant to be. But Bowyer doesn’t let pessimism set in.

“We’re out there putting all the cards on the table and pushing as hard as we can to win that race because that was the only reason we were there. To win that race,” he said. “We didn’t have to take care of any points whatsoever, we were already locked in the Chase, we had to go out there and win that race. And we were doing that job, and unfortunately just pushed a little bit too hard.

“But the good thing is that’s something we can work on, we can pull back from if we have to and still have plenty of horsepower that we know can last to win these races.”

Maintaining that focus in the Chase became a task the night the regular season ended. Bowyer wasn’t touched when he spun out, and skepticism from fans and media of the legitimacy of the incident led to immediate questions about MWR’s ulterior motives during the race. NASCAR agreed that there was smoke to the fire, docking points from Bowyer and Truex, causing Truex to fall out of the Chase and thrusting Bowyer into the middle of a media circus.

He’s said he’s done with the incident, and that his sights are off the past and onto the future. ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace agreed.

“Clint’s a real competitor,” he said. “Here’s the deal: It’s all going to go away. It’s all about the Chase now. This is a chance for that organization to right the ship, and win, and put all the bad stuff behind them.”

Given that chance, Bowyer’s running with it. His ninth-place finish in the Chase opener at Chicago last week left him behind six other contenders and put him ninth in the standings, but at only 28 points back, Bowyer isn’t ready to concede the title to anyone yet.

“I firmly believe, ‘Don’t put too much emphasis on the start of the Chase,’ ” he said. “Everybody’s so worried about getting things started on the right foot and leading the points when they leave Chicago. That championship isn’t won in Chicago, but it damn sure can be lost.”

Instead, Bowyer’s looking at sustaining success over the whole stretch this fall – a stretch that picks up at a personal favorite.

“Every time I come here, the confidence is through the roof. With me, you see it in your team, everybody,” he said of Loudon, where he’s won twice before. “You just come here and perform and it’s almost effortless. It’s expected.

“For some reason, you come to tracks like that where expectations are high and you’re nervous. But for here, you’re just like, ‘Ah, we’ll be good. I ain’t worried about that one.’ ”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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