From staff reports
The road to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Championship winds through Atlanta Motor Speedway twice. Once early in the year when teams are trying to catapult their season in the right direction and once in the fall when the NEXTEL Cup Championship is hopefully in sight.
Sophomore drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. will clinch a spot in the 2007 Chase for the NEXTEL Cup by simply taking the green flag for this weekend's NEXTEL Cup race, their first time ever participating in NASCAR's playoff system.
"I can't even imagine what it means yet," Truex said of making the Chase. "It's still such a dream come true that I'm not even sure if I can put it into words. All I can say is that I'm glad to see all of the hard work and hours spent in the shop pay off for my guys. They all work so hard, so its great to see them get rewarded."
Bowyer shared similar emotions, but has another goal heading into the Chase.
"I want to win," Bowyer said. "We need to get a win. I don't want to be the only guy in the Chase that hasn't won. If we are, certainly that isn't a bad thing. But we just have to pick it up. I think we can do it."
With Bowyer and Truex Jr. essentially a lock for the fourth Chase for the NEXTEL Cup, they, as well as the other 10 Chase drivers, will come to AMS after a season of highs and lows.
"In the spring we were 42nd in the points so we've came a long way," Bowyer said. "We still had a few bad finishes and some trouble, but our cars have been fast all year long. A lot of things have gone the way we wanted them too, a few haven't, but for the most part it's been a really great year."
It has been feast or famine for both Bowyer and Truex at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the seventh race in the Chase. In three Atlanta starts, Bowyer has recorded finishes of 27th, 25th and sixth. Truex has claimed finishes of 37th, 19th and eighth. The good news for each driver is that their best AMS finishes came in the most recent race, the March 2007 Kobalt Tools 500.
Truex also claimed a victory in the Crown Royal International Race of Champions season finale at AMS in 2006 and Bowyer recorded a fifth-place finish in the March, 2007 American Commercial Truck Series 200 Craftsman Truck Series race at AMS.
"It was a good day," Bowyer said about his finish in the Kobalt Tools 500. "We were good all day long, we just got a little tight there at the end, but it was a good day for us."
Regardless of past successes or woes at AMS, both Truex and Bowyer will have to be at the top of their game when they come to the fastest track on the NASCAR circuit if they wish to emerge with a shot at the title.
In the last 10 fall races at AMS, every Cup champion has had an average finish of 10th. Kurt Busch recovered from a blown engine and a finish of 42nd in 2004 to claim the title and Jeff Gordon notched a 17th-place finish and still won the championship in 1997. Other than those two races, a champion has never finished worse than 11th at AMS in the fall.
Truex and Bowyer still like their chances of competing for a championship despite their history at AMS.
"The only reason we didn't win (races) last year is that we had some bad luck," Truex said.
"Everybody on the Bass Pro Shops team could see that we were getting better every week. We kept bringing fast cars to the race track, so we just knew it was a matter of time before we got a win and put ourselves into Chase contention."
Bowyer has similar feelings and is ready for the added pressure of making the chase to subside.
"It's just so weird," Bowyer said. "I don't like racing like this and having that pressure of having to have a solid run. That's not the kind of racing that we're made of.
We're just doing our thing... same thing we do every week and we'll show them what we've got in the last 10 races."