Tony Stewart was cruising towards the Chase in 2006, 97 points in front of Kasey Kahne with two races remaining in the 26-race regular season. Stewart, then the defending Sprint Cup champion, also had a two-driver buffer, in Mark Martin and Jeff Burton, between his eighth place and Kahne's 11th back when 10 drivers qualified for the championship playoff.
And yet Stewart, in one of the biggest disappointments of his remarkable career, was eliminated from the Chase by Kahne, who outscored Stewart by 113 points in the last two races. Martin and Burton held on to make the Chase and Stewart fell all the way to 11th.
Clint Bowyer should take note of that history as he approaches Atlanta and Richmond, the final regular season races. He has a 100-point advantage over Jamie McMurray and a 101-point lead over Martin for the 12th and final spot in the Chase.
Back in 2006, Kahne made his leap with a victory at the Auto Club Speedway in California in which he scored the maximum 190 points. He followed that with a third-place finish at Richmond. Stewart was ninth at California, which kept him eighth in the points, 45 in front of Kahne. But an 18th-place finish at Richmond knocked him out of the Chase entirely. If Stewart was vulnerable in a comparable situation, Bowyer is too.
Those who think Bowyer is safe will say that Kahne's performances in 2006 are unlikely to re-occur. They should consider how well McMurray has run in the last six races and the equipment he's driving.
McMurray's Chase hopes seemed to be gone after he was caught up in a crash at Daytona and finished 39th. It left him 19th in the points.
Cup's comeback driver of the year followed with a fifth at Chicagoland, a victory at Indianapolis, 22nd at Pocono, sixth at Watkins Glen, 20th at Michigan and third at Bristol. McMurray is on a roll. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is giving him competitive cars and his Earnhardt Childress Chevrolet engines are the best of any in the series. McMurray is certainly capable of netting the pair of top-fives that he needs to overtake Bowyer.
Bowyer understands what it takes to make the Chase. He's in position to make it for the third time in his fifth Cup season. Bowyer is as uncontroversial as a Kansas wheat field, partly because he doesn't put his car at risk or run over people. His trademark is delivering those top-10 finishes. This year he has 12, and over his career he has 73 in 169 Cup races.
Bowyer has three of his four top-fives this season -- all fourth-place finishes -- in the last six races, including last weekend at Bristol. He has the ability to rise to the occasion and that's what it probably will take to hold off McMurray. Bowyer also has the formidable cars and engines of Richard Childress Racing that have carried Kevin Harvick to the top of the points and Jeff Burton to seventh.
McMurray, with nothing to lose, will go all out to win the final two races. Bowyer and crew chief Shane Wilson will try to produce the fastest and steadiest full-fuel run possible for the race, but they face difficult decisions once it starts.
Do they go for safety, trying to ensure going the distance, sacrificing track position by taking four tires on every stop, no matter what the circumstance? Taking two at Atlanta can be particularly risky, where a tire blowout will put you against the wall at 200-mph and leave you somewhere in the 30s or 40s at the end of the race.
Do they try to keep an eye on McMurray and Martin -- if he breaks out of his late season slump -- and try to race them rather than the rest of the field?
Does Bowyer run more conservatively than usual, trying to stay out of trouble, and run his own race rather than worrying about what McMurray and Martin are doing?
Bowyer has only two wins in Cup, most recently in May 2008 at Richmond. He'd undoubtedly like to be secure in the top 12 and be in position to run for a win in the regular season finale.
Bowyer's 100-point lead over McMurray is significant, but 12th in points isn't secure.
"It's a little bit of a cushion," Bowyer said following Bristol. "Jamie McMurray is 13th and he beat me tonight. But we've just got to keep doing what we're doing. If we do that, I don't think they can catch us. Our cars are running well and 100 points is a lot.
"Mark Martin and Ryan Newman [118 points out of 12th place] are not out of this thing yet, either. We just have to keep digging and doing what we are doing and they are not going to catch us."
Bowyer has reasons to be confident, but he has two tough races ahead of him to get to the Chase. All the pressure is on him and the No. 33 team. They can't afford to make mistakes or play it too conservatively. One thing is certain: Bowyer will be a deserving member of the Chase if he gets there.