LOUDON, N.H. – With the exception of Denny Hamlin, the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship already has been turned upside down. And in Hamlin's case, NASCAR's playoff has been flipped over and back again, all within its first race.
What exactly went down Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is tantamount to a bad romantic dramedy, one with peaks and valleys – and, perhaps, more peaks, depending on who you were.
Hamlin spun midway through the race and appeared headed for a bad points day, only to rally to finish second. On the flip side was Tony Stewart, who was a mile and a half from victory when he ran out of fuel. Stewart barely made it to the checkered flag and wound up 24th.
That actually was one spot better than Jimmie Johnson, who spun once and later had a loose wheel that brought him down pit road for an unscheduled stop. Johnson's 25th-place finish was the lowest of the 12 Chase drivers.
And then there was Clint Bowyer, the final qualifier for the Chase. So what did he do Sunday? He won for the first time since May 3, 2008.
Bowyer started the day 12th in the standings. Like Stewart, he gambled on fuel, only he had just enough to make it to the end. As a result, he's now second in the standings, just 35 points back of Hamlin.
"This Chase is going to be as close as it's ever been," Bowyer said after picking up the third Cup victory of his career. "I mean, when the 12 seed wins the first race, all of those guys that have won races and everything else, it just shows you the level of competition in this Chase."
While Bowyer has momentum, the driver everyone now is chasing is Hamlin.
He came into the Chase as the No. 1 seed, his mental makeup being the only real question around whether he can compete for a championship. A year ago, Hamlin took himself out of title contention with a boneheaded move at California when he wrecked while leading the race. Though he's won six times this season and 10 in the last two, there remained legitimate concerns about whether Hamlin has the mental fortitude to withstand a 10-race marathon.
He appeared to have erased that question Sunday.
When Carl Edwards spun him out on Lap 215, Hamlin had a moment of frustration, then quickly got over it, telling himself that he could still salvage a top-15. When he got to the top 15, he upped his expectations to a top-eight. And when he got to the top eight, that's when he set his sights on the lead.
For him, this Chase is about keeping one eye on the big picture – the championship – and with that comes managing expectations.
"If we would have been just a touch more aggressive when we restarted 22nd with 80 [laps] to go, I probably would have ended up wrecking, and then we would have been 30-something or 40-something," Hamlin explained. "My goal was just to pick up seven cars in the last 80, and then a couple people pit, you know, strategy happens, and next thing you know, you just shift your expectations."
Hamlin said his goal going into the Chase was to be within 60 points of the lead after the third race, meaning he now has a 95-point cushion to play with the next two weeks at Dover (where he finished fourth earlier this season) and Kansas (where he was fifth last year).
Johnson, meanwhile, finds himself as the chaser, which isn't an unfamiliar role for the four-time defending champion. He trailed leaving New Hampshire last year, and in 2006 headed to Dover 139 points behind then-leader Kevin Harvick.
The gap is 92 points this year, with Johnson having dropped from second to seventh in the standings.
Looking ahead to next week, nine of the 12 Chase drivers finished in the top 11 at Dover earlier this season. One of those who didn't was Johnson, who led a race-high 225 laps before a speeding penalty on pit road cost him an almost certain victory.
"We lost some control today, to say the least," Johnson said on pit road after the race. "Being where we are in points, we need to be flawless just to catch up, and we might need some help.
"There are still nine races left. I have no clue what's gonna happen with my team or any other team. I'm just going to show up, drive my butt off and see what happens."