With just four races left in the NASCAR regular season, we've winnowed down the field of relevant drivers from 43-plus to just a handful. Eight are almost certainly in the Chase, another 30 are in effect looking toward next season. And of those that remain in play, one man could upset months of carefully-laid plans.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Clint Bowyer, the wild card in the hunt for the wild card.
Bowyer now sits in the Bermuda Triangle between the top-10 Chase competitors and the currently-in wild cards. (That would be Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.) Bowyer is 25 points behind Tony Stewart for the 10th position, and eight points ahead of Hamlin in 11th. Hamlin holds the edge over Bowyer for the wild card with his one win, but a single victory by Bowyer obviously would reverse that, as the points stand now.
The schedule becomes significant here: while Atlanta and Bristol are so-so tracks for Bowyer, and Michigan is one of his worst, his very best track is the regular season-ending Richmond International Raceway, where he has a win and an average finish of 9.5. We could be looking at a Hamlin-Bowyer battle for that final Chase spot three weeks from now.
"It's on for these next four races," Bowyer said on Friday, adding, "We've got to beat those guys. At the end of the day, that's the only thing that it's going to take to succeed and be part of that Chase is to be better than those guys the next four races. I feel like we can do it, but we've got to step up to the plate and get the job done."
Bowyer has experience with this last-second Chase stretch; he narrowly missed in 2009 after a wreck with Michael Waltrip at Bristol, and raced his way into the 2010 Chase at Richmond. This has to be getting a little old for him.
But on-track battles aren't the only reason Bowyer is now in play. With Carl Edwards now off the market and back with Roush Fenway, Bowyer is the most notable unattached free agent, and Richard Childress Racing isn't quite as much of a lock as Roush was for Edwards.
While Red Bull was often mentioned as a destination for Bowyer, that option is now off the table. So The NASCAR Insiders offer up three very intriguing scenarios:
• Bowyer would go to Joe Gibbs Racing and take over the Home Depot #20, with Logano either moved to a fourth team or sent packing.
• UPS would put together a sponsorship deal for Bowyer to remain at RCR.
• Most intriguing: UPS and Bowyer would go arm-in-arm to Richard Petty Motorsports as a third team.
Possibilities? Certainly. These next few weeks will be lively ones indeed for Clint Bowyer. Your thoughts?