LOUDON, N.H. (AP) -- Clint Bowyer was seeded last in the Chase for the championship field. With zero Nextel Cup wins and hardly any laps led, he went off as a 30-to-1 long shot to win the series title.
One race into the Chase, Bowyer has turned into a legitimate contender.
He raced to the first victory of his Cup career on Sunday by embarrassing the field at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he started from the pole and led 222 of 300 laps while beating Jeff Gordon to the finish line by over 6 seconds.
``Once you get into the Chase, you've got to go for broke,'' Bowyer said.
Bowyer started the Chase as the 12th seed, the only driver in the Chase field without a victory. He'd never finished higher than third before, and had led just 196 laps in his Cup career -- 84 this season.
But NASCAR's scoring system rewards consistency, and Bowyer earned his spot in the title hunt with 12 top-10 finishes. Now he's got that coveted win, and it pushed him up eight spots in the standings to fourth.
He trails Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who are tied for the lead, by just 15 points.
``This proves we earned a spot and we're here for a reason and just so happy to be a part of the Chase,'' Bowyer said. ``It's such a neat deal and, hey, this is the Nextel Cup, baby.''
Gordon, the four-time series champion, finished second and was followed by two-time series champion Tony Stewart. Kyle Busch was fourth and followed by Martin Truex Jr., Johnson and Matt Kenseth as Chase drivers took the top seven spots.
Casey Mears was eighth, followed by Ryan Newman and J.J. Yeley.
The Chase opener wasn't so kind to Carl Edwards (12th), Denny Hamlin (15th), Kevin Harvick (17th), Jeff Burton (18th) and Kurt Busch (25th). Although they were all running at the end, it's going to take top-10 finishes to decide this championship, and the competition is off to a tremendous headstart.
Johnson and Gordon are tied for the points lead, and Stewart is 10 points back. Bowyer moved into fourth place, 15 points out. Kyle Busch jumped four spots to fifth and is 35 points behind. Truex is sixth, 40 points back, and Kenseth is seventh.
``We need to run better than that, obviously, to contend for a championship,'' said Kenseth, 54 points behind.
Edwards dropped four spots to eighth, and Hamlin fell three spots to ninth. Harvick is 10th. Burton 11th and Kurt Busch plummeted seven spots to 12th and is 102 points behind the leaders.
``It's kind of a bummer, but we worked hard to get in this Chase and we'll still work hard,'' said Kurt Busch, who had a motor problem.
The day belonged to Bowyer, who joined Truex as the two newcomers to the championship field. But because he had never been to Victory Lane, few considered him a legitimate title contender. By blowing away the field, he changed that.
``If you are going to win the first one of the year, that's the time to do it,'' Gordon said. ``I think everybody is happy for Clint. When we were up in New York, it seemed like everyone was like `Clint Bowyer, he doesn't have a shot at the championship.'
``I think today was a real statement for him and I think it just proves that anybody in the top 12 can win this championship.''
Bowyer's car was so good, he knew the only thing that could beat him was himself. It happened last week in Richmond, when he spun while trying to pass for the lead, and Bowyer spent the final 50 laps fretting over his radio. He worried about his car, grew frustrated with lapped traffic, and the setting sun, which made it difficult for him to see at times.
But his Richard Childress Racing team urged him to relax, and the 28-year-old Kansas driver nervously made it to the finish.
``I'm not going to kid you, I was about to throw up,'' he said. ``What was funny, I was starting to feel a vibration but I don't know what it was. It was just you hear every rattle, banging and everybody racing -- I was watching up ahead hoping, praying that nobody crashed.''
He celebrated with a tremendous burnout that damaged his motor, and he couldn't start his Chevrolet to make the drive to Victory Lane. So he walked, and it was the first time all day that anyone could catch him.
``Even if we ran 7,000 laps, unless he blew up, we weren't going to catch him,'' Gordon said.
Now Bowyer hopes to continue rolling toward a first championship. In finally scoring that first win, he's taken the first step.
``I definitely believe we earned a spot in this Chase and we belonged to be in the Chase,'' Bowyer said. ``I read all the magazines, and I'll tell you, I'm always pretty upbeat until you read them and realize `Man, we better be doing better.' But it makes it fuel for the fire and it makes you want to come and win and run upfront and prove to ... everybody else that you belong here.''