LOUDON, N.H. -- Even the doughnuts on the front stretch seemingly couldn't have been more perfect.
Coming into the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Clint Bowyer was the driver questioned more than any other about whether he deserved to be part of the group running for the title.
He was the only driver of the 12 Chase qualifiers to not have earned a win in the first 26 races of the Nextel Cup season, and he had only two top-five finishes before the field was set for the Chase.
Yesterday at New Hampshire International Speedway, Bowyer proved that he belongs in that group. Bowyer opened the Chase in style with his first career Nextel Cup victory in the Sylvania 300.
"I'm not going to kid you," Bowyer said. "I was about to throw up those last 30 laps."
Bowyer backed up winning the pole Friday with an almost perfect run, leading 221 of 300 laps. He beat Jeff Gordon to the line by 6.46 seconds.
"Today is a real statement for him," said Gordon, who moved into a tie for the points lead with sixth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson. "It just proves that anybody in the top 12 can win this championship. If you're going to win your first one of the year, this is the time to do it."
After taking the checkered flag, Bowyer ran a burnout down the front stretch, then turned a handful of doughnuts just before the start-finish line. As the smoke cleared, he climbed from the car, raised a fist to the fans pressed against the fence and slapped the roof of his car. Then he got back in to drive to victory lane. But the car that had been so perfect all day was all done.
"I think I blew it up," Bowyer said. "I thought the more smoke, the better. When I was done I got back in and it wouldn't start."
Bowyer's crew came out on the track and pushed his car to victory lane for him. Bowyer jumped from 12th to fourth in the standings, a mere 15 points behind Johnson and Gordon.
"We've got a legitimate shot at this," Bowyer said. "This really opens your eyes. ... Once you get to the Chase, you've got to go for broke. Finally we did what we were supposed to do."
Bowyer's crew chief, Gil Martin, said of his driver: "I think today showed he's solidly in this deal and we've got a shot at it."
Bowyer said the criticism that his team didn't belong in the Chase field and the questions of whether he was competitive enough to win a race helped drive the team before it arrived in New Hampshire. In 63 previous Nextel Cup starts, Bowyer, in his second full-time year in the division, had led a total of 196 laps.
"It's just hard," Bowyer said. "You ask yourself the same question every time you get close and make a mistake and you come up a little bit short for a win. It's definitely frustrating. It is what it is. They were right, we were the only ones in the Chase that hadn't won a race. They can't say that anymore.
"I read all the magazines. I'm always pretty upbeat and excited until I read the magazines and the articles and realize, 'Man, we better be doing better.' It's kind of fuel to the fire, so to speak, and it makes you want to come and win and run up front and prove to the media and everybody else that you belong here."
Traffic on the cool-down lap after the checkered flag backed up through Turns 3 and 4 as driver after driver pulled up alongside Bowyer to offer their congratulations. The reception continued in victory lane, where other drivers were waiting.
"Those are your peers, those are the people you've looked up to racing," Bowyer said. "Those are the guys you wanted to be like three or four years ago, and I never would have dreamed that I would have been able to race against them. To be able to beat them and have those guys roll into victory lane, that's very gratifying. I have a lot of respect for those guys, and to see them have respect for me feels pretty good."
Shawn Courchesne writes for the Hartford Courant.