INDIANAPOLIS – Clint Bowyer’s quest to get into the Cup Series playoffs was not as precarious as Ryan Newman’s, but he was a long way from being locked into the 15th position in the 16-driver playoff lineup entering Sunday’s Brickyard 400.
He still needed to finish ahead of the other drivers in contention for the playoffs including Newman, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson, who entered the race still eligible to get in on points, but realistically needed to win the race to clinch.
Bowyer improved his chances of making the playoffs dramatically by qualifying third fastest in Sunday morning’s Brickyard 400 qualifications.
The race, however, had more than its share of moments of “high anxiety” for the Stewart Haas Racing driver.
“You’re damn right I did,” Bowyer told NBC Sports on pit road at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “You knew it going in, you knew it was going to be high anxiety and it was going to be crazy like that.
“You don’t know where it’s going to be coming from. About the time we qualified good, I walked away from that car and knew the worst was yet to happen. The caution could come out at Lap 10 and present an opportunity for somebody and a mishap for somebody else.”
That happened throughout the race for Bowyer, who kept track of his competitors throughout the race and tried to manage his day.
In the closing stages of the contest, Bubba Wallace was in contention to sneak into the playoffs with a victory. He was running third, briefly made it up to second, before he was passed by Joey Logano for that position with the laps winding down.
The last thing Bowyer or Newman needed was a driver like Wallace to completely change the dynamic of the playoffs with an upset victory.
“I didn’t want to be anywhere around Bubba today,” Bowyer said. “I knew what he was racing for and what I was racing for and those two things didn’t match up today.
“I’m happy for Bubba, though. It was a great finish at a great race track for him. That’s a great finish for him and his team.”
Wallace would finish third, behind race winner Kevin Harvick and second place Logano. William Bryon finished fourth and Bowyer’s fifth-place finish was more than enough to lock him into the playoffs.
He became the third driver in the four-car Stewart-Haas Racing team to make the 16-driver lineup for the playoffs. Daniel Suarez was still in competition, entering the race tied in points with Newman, but his 11th-place finish combined with Newman’s eighth place eliminated the driver from Mexico.
“It was super close to getting all four in,” Bowyer said. “We’ve got to keep building, man. We’re working hard and digging and trying to get better.
“We aren’t the fastest group. We know that. But we looked pretty damn fast today.”
Bowyer’s road to that top-five finish was eventful to say the least.
“It was going to be chaotic, I said that before the race, it was going to be an emotional roller-coaster,” Bowyer said. “The 6 car (Newman) was able to stay out there and capitalize on that and get those five points on us.
“I was like, ‘Damn, I didn’t need that.’
“But we got it back in the second stage. It was identical. I finished fifth and he finished 11th in that stage and he handed it right back to us.
“We were faster than we ran. I think we were a top-five car, but we were just trying to survive. We needed to survive this thing and it was going to be a war of attrition and we survived.”
Making the playoffs is important, but it doesn’t beat winning, according to Bowyer.
“Winning is everything,” Bowyer said. “That’s why we get up in the morning, to go win. There is nothing better than winning. I’m looking forward to some of those tracks. I should have won at Richmond earlier this year.
“I still think about that race and how easy our season would have been if I had won it earlier.”
Now, it’s off to the playoffs and Bowyer is excited his team’s recent surge. Since finishing 37th at Michigan in August, Bowyer has finished seventh at Bristol, sixth at Darlington and fifth at Indianapolis.
“We’ve got 10 races in the playoffs and the last three races have been single-digit finishes for us,” Bowyer said. “That will get you around. It also builds confidence and momentum with our race team. That is what it takes.
“We are finally doing the right things, putting ourselves in the right situations to capitalize on other people’s mishaps rather than being the one to make the mishap and having someone capitalize on us.”