Asterisk man

Jonathan Baum

HAMPTON, Ga. – The clock had struck midnight, the fat lady was singing, the barkeep had yelled "last call."

Use whatever cliché or metaphor you want. Clint Bowyer's surprising run at the Nextel Cup championship was over.

As if a wreck in Happy Hour practice here at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Saturday weren't enough, some pit road tangling in Sunday's race – Bowyer was forced to check up while heading to the pits, causing him to be hit from behind after bumping the car in front of him – essentially undid some of the repairs Bowyer's crew made to his No. 07 Chevy during that final practice session a day earlier.

So there Bowyer was, running back in the 20s, while Jimmie Johnson rolled around in the top 10 and points leader Jeff Gordon tried to work his way toward Johnson.

The in-progress points report didn't look good. Bowyer's magical run had to end sometime, right?

Through the first Chase races, Bowyer had yet to flinch. Sure, it was essentially a two-man race heading into Atlanta, but with an asterisk. That being Bowyer.

Bowyer, the winner of the Chase opener at New Hampshire, was third in the standings, 115 points out of the lead, when the green flag waved here Sunday. The title was out of his hands, for sure, but he was first in line to benefit should anything happen to the frontrunners.

Call him the second runner-up in the pageant.

But there was the pit road incident. And Bowyer's car was, by his own admission, way too lose on Sunday. And the balance was off. And then it would swing too easily between being loose and tight. And then it didn't have enough grip.

The short of it was that Bowyer's hopes appeared to be buried. Until roughly the halfway point of the race, that is.

When Bobby Labonte wrecked on Lap 162, the field came in to pit. Bowyer was still mired in the 20s and not going anywhere, so he and crew chief Gil Martin decided to take just two tires and gain track position.

For the most part, the gamble worked.

Bowyer restarted fourth, but cars with fresher rubber began to run him down. It was 35 laps later when David Stremme wrecked to bring out another caution. Bowyer was 17th – nowhere near the top five, but decidedly better than he had been earlier. And now with four fresh tires.

He remained in the mid-teens for much of the rest of the day before benefiting from the late cautions brought out by Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., and then by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Some cars wrecked during those mad restarts, some scattered, some slowed.

And when the checkers flew, Bowyer, somehow, found himself sixth – one spot in front of Gordon.

"That (finish) was pretty wild," Bowyer said. "We were just a little off today. We definitely didn't deserve the finish that we got. Nonetheless, the guys worked hard to get us in contention. That is what you have to do."

Johnson won the race and eliminated almost all of Gordon's lead in the points. But in finishing ahead of Gordon, Bowyer actually gained a tiny bit on the leader.

So Bowyer, the dark horse of this Chase, is still in the mix as this magical Chase for the Cup sophomore continues.

"I would say we got a (big) break today," Bowyer said. "(It's) fortunate things are going our way. When it is your day, it is your day."

So here Bowyer sits, 111 points out with three races to go. Should Gordon and Johnson hold serve, a championship comeback will be difficult. But Bowyer showed Sunday he and his team are still in the fight.

"What we have to do is keep digging. We can't give up," he said. "We didn't give up today and we won't give up. We stayed on the lead lap and probably shouldn't have; worked on it as much as we could and came out of here with a decent day."

Still, odds are strong that one of those Hendrick teammates will clutch the trophy at Homestead. But there still is an asterisk, and that asterisk still is Bowyer.

"You have to at least be there to take advantage if somebody does have trouble," Bowyer said after Sunday's race.

Because of Sunday's effort, that's exactly the position in which Bowyer remains.