He is different now. Ever since Clint Bowyer spun out late in the regular-season finale at Richmond, he has been hearing boos from fans for the first time in his career, and his usual happy-go-lucky smile has been seen much less frequently. Jimmie Johnson recently said that Bowyer has "an extra force out there weighing on him" and it certainly appears that way.
Bowyer has never confessed that he intentionally threw his number 15 Toyota into that spin in order to help his teammate, Martin Truex Jr., get into the Chase. NASCAR could not find conclusive proof that Bowyer intentionally spun out, but he was still penalized 50 points, even though he was allowed to compete in the Chase. The sanctioning body also docked Michael Waltrip Racing $300,000, the largest fine in the sport's history.
Is it fair that Bowyer has become the face of the biggest scandal in NASCAR of this millennium? I don't think so. He was merely obeying an order from his team. Should Bowyer have refused to follow the directive? Of course, but it's never easy to say no to a superior.
Ever since he made his full-time debut in the Cup Series in 2006, Bowyer has been one of the most well-liked figures in the garage. Easygoing, accessible, and always looking to pull a prank, he is a throwback driver who doesn't take himself too seriously. But now he's driving like he's distracted. After running in the top five for most of the season, he's fallen to eighth in the standings.
This weekend Bowyer and the Cup series head to his home track -- Kansas Speedway -- for Chase race No. 4. A native of nearby Emporia Kans., Bowyer most certainly won't be booed on Sunday. And once the race starts, he should be very, very fast. He has never won at Kansas, but in his last two starts at the 1.5-mile oval he has a 5.5 average finish.
It says here that Bowyer ends his winless drought on the plains in front a large contingent of his friends and family. This race will be the perfect tonic for him. He's my pick to take the checkered flag.
Here are four other drivers to watch at Kansas:
1. Matt Kenseth
Throughout his 15-year Cup career, Kenseth's best performances have taken place on 1.5-mile tracks. Four of his seven victories this year have been at such venues, including a win at Kansas in April. Kenseth owns a 12-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the standings. If he doesn't finish in the top-five on Sunday, it would be an upset.
2. Jimmie Johnson
One month ago there were concerns on the number 48 team that something was missing. Johnson entered the Chase with four straight finishes of 28th or worse. In fact, of all the Chase drivers, he'd scored the fewest points over the last month of the regular season. But now that the stakes have been raised, Johnson is flourishing. He finished fifth at Chicago, fourth at Loudon, and won last Sunday at Dover. There's a reason why he's the greatest stock car driver of his generation: When it matters most, he delivers his best performances.
In his last nine starts at Kansas, Johnson has not finished lower than ninth and he has two wins. Expect a top-three run for Mr. Five Time on Sunday.
3. Kyle Busch
In almost any other year, Busch would have the points lead right now. He finished second at Chicago, second at Loudon, and third at Dover. It's the third time this season that he has reeled off three straight top-fives. But because Kenseth and Johnson are winning races, stringing top-fives together probably won't be good enough for Busch to capture the championship. He needs checkered flags if he's going to catch and pass the two drivers ahead of him in the standings.
But it likely won't happen at Kansas, which is one of Busch's worst tracks in the Chase. In 12 career starts in the Heartland, his average finish is 22.4 and earlier this year he came in 38th at Kansas. If he matches his career average on Sunday, his shot at the title will likely be over. So Busch is simply hoping to survive with a top 10 and then move on to the following Saturday at Charlotte, where he has three top five finishes in his last four starts.
4. Jeff Gordon
No driver in the last eight years has endured more hard hits and violent crashes than Gordon. He admits he's no longer as aggressive as he once was -- he's now quicker to lay off the throttle if he senses that he's about to come into harm's way -- but he makes up for that with savvy and guile. Now 41, Gordon may be facing his final opportunity to win his fifth championship.
Gordon currently trails Kenseth by 39 points, so clearly the leaders will have to struggle at some point in order for him to make a move. But if he can win two of the next six races, he should be a factor in the season finale at Homestead.
Can Gordon win on Sunday? He took checkered flags in the first two events that NASCAR held at Kansas, in 2001 and '02, but since then he hasn't been back in Victory Lane at the track. In his last four starts there, his average finish is 19.5 He'll have to do better than that to maintain his hold on fourth place in the standings -- and I think he will. Pencil Gordon in for a top-five on Sunday.