With just five races to go before the 12-driver Chase field is set, Clint Bowyer holds a tenuous 34-point lead over Mark Martin.
Is he feeling the heat?
Yahoo! Sports talked to Bowyer on Thursday about the race to the Chase, whom the championship battle will come down to and what the protocol is for exacting payback.
1. Y! Sports: Are you feeling the pressure to make the Chase right now?
Bowyer: There's always pressure. It doesn't matter what position you're in or where you're at in this sport, there's always pressure behind sponsors, owners and everything involved. When you're racing at a level as high as the Cup level, there's going to be pressure.
But certainly there's pressure around the Chase. The biggest part of our sport right now is being in that Chase and being a part of that for your sponsors.
But our cars are running very well. The good thing about our situation, with five races to go, is we're looking ahead. I still think some of these cars in front of us we can outrun and not be on the bubble.
I've got a couple of very important races coming up. I mean, Watkins Glen is no question a rough track for me personally. We had a good run last year – I think we finished eighth or something – so if we can capitalize on that, build on that and get ourselves a top-10 run, I really think that will set us up for these next ones because they are good tracks for me.
2. Y! Sports: Are you comparing yourself to Mark Martin right now?
Bowyer: If you're looking over your shoulder, I'm obviously looking at Mark Martin. If there's anybody that has potential to knock yourself out, it's Mark. Obviously he's done everything – been there and done that – and certainly his credentials speak for themselves.
But they haven't been running well. You have to put that into consideration. They've struggled a little bit – struggled a lot more than he ever has in the past. That's something we need to take advantage of while we can because he's not going to struggle long.
Y! Sports: You've been better than where you sit in the standings. Is that frustrating?
Bowyer: Absolutely. If you look at our season, we've run up front all season long. We just have had crazy – just like last weekend, we were running seventh, were where we needed to be, get involved in a wreck that's completely out of our hands and the next thing I know I'm 28th with 15 laps to go. Thank God we were able to get up to 15th. I mean, that shows our speed. That shows our competitiveness of our race team. But nevertheless, there's some crazy things that have been out of our control all season long.
Daytona. Both Daytonas. We were in contention to win and was within a football field of winning in July, caution comes out, run over something on the track, end up with a flat tire, crash and finish 17th. I mean, just crazy stuff like that has happened all season long.
Seems like we have two good runs, then take a step backwards with something crazy and bogus. If anything makes me nervous, it's those.
3. Y! Sports: How does a team go from not qualifying anyone for the Chase to potentially qualifying all three and being a legitimate contender for a title?
Bowyer: Having a year like last year forced us to really make a lot of changes. Really step back and look at your program and force Richard [Childress] and everyone involved at Richard Childress Racing to make a lot of changes. Engineering was the biggest part of it.
If you look over the last few years, the banning of the testing policy was probably the biggest thing that hurt RCR because their old "get your results by the work ethic" went by the wayside. You couldn't just go to the race track and test and stay there until they fixed the problem like they used to. We were having to rely on new things that were completely foreign to us.
Simulation. You know, our engineering department was good, but it wasn't near as good as Hendrick [Motorsports] and some of these others. And I think that over these last two years, Hendrick was so much better than the rest through their simulation. They were just far more advanced than any other race teams, and it showed big time in the race track.
4. Y! Sports: Taking yourself out of the equation, whom do you see the championship battle coming down to?
Bowyer: Truthful, I think RCR and Hendrick Motorsports. Gibbs is certainly capable of getting the job done, but man I tell ya hopefully RCR will have three shots at it. I mean, Kevin [Harvick's] team has been awesome this year. They've not only had good cars, they've had everything going their way. And if they can continue to ride that wave on into the Chase, they're going to be a haaaard one to beat.
5. Y! Sports: What's the hardest hit you've ever taken in a race car?
Bowyer: Probably at Talladega. I got clipped in the right-rear kind of coming off the corner of Turn 4 wide open and it sent me head on right into the fence. And it was one of those things where I didn't think – I mean, I talked to Elliott [Sadler] after his [wreck at Pocono], and he was like, "Man, I didn't think I was going to hit that hard. It was, 'Oh my God, I can't believe how much I hurt and how hard I hit.' " That was kind of the same thing I had at Talladega. I didn't think I was going to hit that hard and I couldn't believe it. The impact was way harder than anything that I had ever felt.
But man, I can tell you this, it didn't rip the engine out of the car.
Y! Sports: When you're in an accident like that, what's going through your head after it's over?
Bowyer: [laughing] Just trying to get the light back at the end of the tunnel, that's what you're trying to do. It's no different than playing football or playing sports, when you get knocked out, knocked the wind out of you or anything else, you're trying to figure out what the hell just happened. I mean I'm not going to lie, that's exactly what it's like.
It's hard to put into words when you wreck what that feels like. It's unbelievable how quick it come and goes. It's like, pffff!, then it's a huge impact and it goes away very fast, unless you bounce across the track and get hit again by somebody. But it's incredible how fast the impact is and how quickly it goes away.
6. Y! Sports: In your mind, what's the protocol for paying another driver back for wrecking you?
Bowyer: I don't think there's really a protocol. I think it all comes down to what's fair. Hey man, at the end of the day this is exactly what it comes down to: Everything you're seeing this year comes down to good racing. It comes down to NASCAR putting the right foot forward, making some adjustments to the rules. Green-white-checkered finishes, multiple attempts at that, double-file restarts. Those are the things that are creating this frustration within the drivers when you're seeing retaliations and things like that.
Because of the good racing is what's bringing out this frustration and some of the emotion within the drivers, but I think it's a good thing. It's good for our sport. You can't lose track and get out of the box. I think we've all seen what too far is. I think we saw what happened between Carl [Edwards] and Brad [Keselowski], I don't think there was anybody in the sport or anybody watching that didn't think or realize, "Hey, that's way too far."
I'm glad that NASCAR stepped in and set a precedent and didn't let this thing get out of control. I think that was important.
7. Y! Sports: What's your take on Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series?
Bowyer: I think it's very important that Cup drivers stay a part of the Nationwide Series. Now, to what extent, I kind of have mixed feelings on it. But I think the Nationwide Series needs Cup drivers in it. I think that's what brings people to watch – the attention and the sponsors.
Now, as a younger driver when I was in the Nationwide Series, when I got to run against the Cup Series, yes, they beat my butt most often. But when I finally got good enough to where I could go door-to-door with them and sometimes beat them, that gave me the opportunity to show Richard what he needed to see to put me in a Cup ride.
So without these Cup drivers in there, I don't think you're going to be able to have guys coming up through the ranks, not only for owners to see what they need to see, but sponsors. They can see what they need to see so they can invest in a driver and be able to give him that opportunity he needs to move on.
So I think it's very important to have Cup drivers in it. But I also think it's important to not have them in the races sometimes. These stand-alone events, I don't think without a doubt there should be a Cup driver there. I think that should be [the Nationwide regulars] time to have their time in the sun and showcase their talent, get a little bit of confidence, momentum behind their race team, get that first win of maybe their career, their season. They need a little bit of confidence as well.
8. Y! Sports: What's the most frivolous thing you spend money on?
Bowyer: Oh man, I don't know. The first thing is obviously paying old debt. When you're racing and coming up through the ranks the way we did, you've got a lot of debt and things. That's the first and foremost thing you want to get out of the way.
Everybody needs to splurge a little bit on themselves. We're gone a lot – probably more than any other sport athlete. We're pretty busy year around, not just in the season, but it's year around for us.
I have a lake house [in Missouri] and that's probably the single-most thing that I spend money on. But man, I tell you, a good halfway place for me if I'm heading to the West Coast for a race, I can stop there on either side of it, get some time to regroup and regain my composure and get back after it.
For me, that's what I use.
9. Y! Sports: What's a typical week like for you?
Bowyer: When you get done racing, the thing that people don't realize and the thing that makes you the busiest, during the week we have sponsor appearances and things like that. Mondays are usually at the shop going over the race, going over team meetings. Just last week, Tuesday I had a photo shoot. Wednesday I had a photo shoot. Thursday we went to the race track. It's that quick.
Even when you're at home, even though we're not racing, doesn't mean we're not working. There's always something going on. There's a lot of appearances. Sponsors pay millions of dollars to make this all happen, and you owe a lot back to 'em, not just going around in circles on Sunday.
9 ½ The one thing I want fans to know about me is …
Bowyer: Hopefully I'm a good guy. I love having fun. I love competing. And I want to win a championship before my career is over.