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Preview: Bowyer again faces a test to make the Chase

August 26, 2011, Sporting News Wire Service,

For fourth consecutive season, Bowyer heads to Bristol with Chase in doubt

With three races to go until the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Clint Bowyer finds himself in familiar territory. And in this case, the familiarity is in no way comforting.

On the contrary, because for the fourth consecutive year, Bowyer will arrive at Bristol Motor Speedway for Saturday's famed Irwin Tools Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) with his Chase hopes in full scramble mode.

Pressure mounts

With three to go before the field is set for the Chase, NASCAR fans are looking at a dramatic stretch run, keyed-off points battles and potential winners, clouded by some murky performance.

"Hey, we're in one of those spots," he said last week. "I'm bummed out that we're in the situation we're in. We've just had too many DNFs this year and got ourselves back there, but it is what it is. We're in that box. We've got to go out there and work hard to be a part of the Chase."

As has been the case since the 2008 season -- his third as a full-time driver in Cup -- Bowyer finds himself on a terra infirma in late August.

The 32-year-old Kansan is 11th in points -- 24 behind two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart -- during a season in which only the top 10 will be granted automatic berths in the Chase.

Furthermore, he is not getting much help from the new wild-card formula, as Bowyer has no victories.

To top things off, he is under the full, hot glare of the "Silly Season" klieg lights, as he is in the final year of his contract with Richard Childress Racing and is testing the free agency waters.

But Bowyer does have a couple of things going for him.

First, he has been here and done this successfully. Only in 2009 did he succumb to pre-Chase shakiness and not make the playoffs: In 2010 he held on to keep the Chase-qualifying position he held heading into Bristol's late summer race, and in 2008, he clawed his way in from being 13th when the night race started.

And Bowyer does have a smidge of momentum going for him: After a terrible run of five races which started at the Daytona July race and saw him drop from eighth to 12th in points, he has finished 11th and eighth in the past two races.

Good, but not great, Bowyer said after last week's eighth-place finish at Michigan. "We gained," he said, "but not near enough."

History says that Bowyer can get enough at the high-banked BMS bullring.

While a couple of DNFs in his 11 previous starts there have hurt his average-finish number -- 18.3 -- Bowyer has also been quite good in Thunder Valley. Especially in the night race, where he has three top-seven finishes in his past four starts. Last August, he finished fourth.

"You're going to have your good runs and you're going to have your bad runs," Bowyer said of Bristol. And now a veteran, Bowyer knows the keys to getting the good runs.

Though short in length, Bristol is anything but low on speed. Its varied banking of up to 30 degrees in the turns allows drivers to keep their right feet jammed to the floorboard. Dealing with that, Bowyer says, is what produces good finishes.

"Everything happens so fast," he said. "The key to success at a track like Bristol is you have to be able to get in the car, settle down and slow everything down, including the pace. You have to think and if you can do all that, you prevail there."

Who's Hot / Who's Not

• Kyle Busch has four victories in the past five Bristol Cup races and has finished first or second in five of the past six.
• Greg Biffle has four top-10s in his past four starts.
• Kurt Busch has finished 15th or better in his past seven Cup races at Bristol.
• Ryan Newman has top-10s in five of his past six Bristol races.
• Jimmie Johnson has finished in the top 10 in four of his past five Bristol races.
• A.J. Allmendinger is looking for his first top-15 in eight races at Bristol.
• Kevin Harvick has just one top-10 in the past five Bristol Cup races.
• Jeff Gordon has not finished in the top-10 in his past four Cup starts at Bristol.
• Denny Hamlin has finished 19th or worse in the past three Bristol Cup races.
• Joey Logano hasn't finished better than 18th in his five Cup starts at Bristol.

And prevail Bowyer must at Bristol. Or face spending the final 10 races of the current year testing for next season.