LOUDON, N.H. — As the last seed in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship, Clint Bowyer didn't land on many lists of legitimate NASCAR title contenders.
Bowyer wasn't mentioned in the same breath as four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, and that spotlight on favorites Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick never drifted in his direction.
So Bowyer was pressure-free as he headed into Sunday's Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and with nothing to lose, he swung for the fences in winning the Sylvania 300.
Bowyer dominated until a series of cautions found him trailing Tony Stewart late. With both drivers trying to nurse sputtering fuel tanks, Bowyer pounced when Stewart's ran dry a lap from the checkered flag.
The victory snapped an 88-race losing streak for Bowyer, jettisoned him from 12th in the standings to second, and sent the Richard Childress Racing driver into Round 2 of the Chase loving his championship chances.
"I had a lot of fun, it was kind of a relaxing weekend," said Bowyer, who led 177 of 300 laps. "I don't know if it's going to be that way from now on. … You've got to be able to continue to have as much fun as we did this weekend. If we can do that, we can continue to have the success and run at this pace."
In arguably the best Chase opener since the format's 2004 debut, the title contenders bounced all over the field as driver after driver faced issues.
Hamlin, the series leader, was spun by Carl Edwards on a mid-race restart and rallied from 22nd to finish second. Harvick, Bowyer's teammate at Richard Childress Racing and the points leader for most of the "regular season," had a series of bad pit stops to fall as low as 18th before finishing fifth.
Johnson was derailed by a loose right wheel late to finish 25th, worst of the Chase drivers.
"I know everybody wants some crazy answer and for me to have some foreshadowing for the future, but, hell, I don't know what's going to happen," said Johnson, who turned 35 Friday.
Then there was Stewart, who tried to stretch his gas the final 92 laps on the 1.058-mile track. It backfired, and he limped to 24th.
"We went down swinging," he said, shrugging. "It's a tough way to start the Chase. I would have settled for second. If you knew exactly how much gas you have, it would be different, but you never know."
The Chase next shifts to Sunday at Dover, Del., where Hamlin takes a 35-point lead over Bowyer into one of his weakest tracks.
"It gives me somewhat of a buffer," he said. "We all know how Dover is for me."
The title race is still tight, even for Johnson (who dropped five spots to seventh) and Stewart, who fell to 11th. But at only 92 points out and headed to a track where he's a five-time winner, Johnson didn't seem worried.
"We'll go home and get back to work and go after it again next week," Johnson said.
He'll now have to contend with Bowyer, who is looking for a repeat of the 2007 Chase.
Like 2010, Bowyer barely made the field that year, then earned his first career victory with a breakthrough in the New Hampshire opener. It set the tone for a strong run as Bowyer wound up a career-high third in points.
"This reminded me a lot of 2007," he said. "That first win of the season … that confidence, the momentum, everybody, not just for me. Everybody has a major pep in their step right now and they are going to carry that through on to next week and if we can continue to ride that momentum wave through this Chase, we can have a shot at it just like we did in 2007."