CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Clint Bowyer knew how strong his Chevrolet was after rolling through the first turn at New Hampshire International Speedway.
He led all but 88 of the 300 laps and built a lead of more than six seconds, fully realizing the race was his to lose. And had Bowyer not coughed away a shot at a win just one week earlier, maybe he wouldn't have been so rattled as he closed in on his first Nextel Cup victory.
But as the setting sun blinded his view of the checkered flag, and lapped cars continued to get in his way, Bowyer nearly came unglued. A car that had been flawless all day suddenly seemed sickly to him, and it was all his Richard Childress Racing team could do to calm the second-year driver.
"Stay focused," spotter Mike Dillon repeatedly coaxed. "You can do this. Just stay focused."
His nerves so shaky he admittedly felt sick to his stomach, Bowyer finally crossed the finish line for his first Nextel Cup victory. The win legitimized his place in the Chase for the championship, and turned the long shot into a credible contender.
He made the Chase as the only driver without a victory, and in 63 previous Cup races he'd never finished higher than third. And just one week earlier, he'd spun while trying to take the lead at Richmond.
So as he mingled with the other 11 drivers during their celebratory trip to New York last week, he couldn't help but feel a little out of place.
"Every time we get close, we'd make a mistake and just come up short," he said. "It's frustrating. But it is what it is. And they were right. We hadn't won a race. We were the only ones in the Chase that hadn't.
"Can't say that anymore."
Not after the humiliation Bowyer put on the field, easily beating Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart to the finish line.
They never came close to challenging him, and joked the only time they got near him was when he damaged his motor doing burnouts and had to abandon his disabled vehicle to walk to Victory Lane.
The win moved Bowyer from last in the Chase standings to fourth, just 15 points behind co-leaders Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. And he became the fourth first-time winner this season, joining Casey Mears, Martin Truex Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya.
With the first victory out of the way, Bowyer will try to build momentum toward winning a championship. He remembers Truex's breakthrough win at Dover in June, which sparked a streak of four top-three finishes in four weeks.
A run like that by Bowyer would certainly put him in contention for the title.
"That's exactly what this team needed," he said. "We need to get that cocky attitude. ... The elite teams have that, you know what I mean?
"(Truex) won at Dover and followed up with three good runs right in a row. I think this team definitely can do the same thing."