WATKINS GLEN, N.Y — Clint Bowyer is a marked man, and he is up for the challenge as NASCAR goes road racing again.
"This is a big race for us," Bowyer said Friday before struggling in the first Sprint Cup practice session over the 11-turn, 2.45-mile Watkins Glen International layout. "I have to get up on the wheel and make things happen. If I can get out of here with a top-10 finish, that's going to set us up good for these last four races. It's going to put me where I need to be. I'm looking forward to it. I think we can do that."
As the driver sitting in the most precarious position in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage, Bowyer sits 12th in the points standings with five races remaining before the Chase for the championship. His challenge is to hold on to that final transfer spot into the 10-race postseason as he prepares for Sunday's often-treacherous road race.
Bowyer leads 13th-place Mark Martin by only 34 points. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is next, 95 points behind Martin but only 54 points ahead of 18th-place David Reutimann as seven drivers remain in the mix.
"We've got to be able to get every position possible," said Bowyer, who has four top-10 finishes in nine career starts on road courses.
Ditto for Ryan Newman, who made the Chase a year ago along with his boss, Tony Stewart, in the first season for Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart is a solid eighth in the standings, but although Newman won at Phoenix he has failed to finish four races and is 138 points behind Bowyer.
If the pressure is mounting, it's subtle at best right now.
"Obviously, we would both rather be in real nice and comfortable and secure, but there's nothing we can do but do the same things we've been doing every week," Stewart said. "If you try to do something different and you try to do something extra, you normally force yourself into an unwanted mistake.
"He (Newman) has had some miserable luck this year, and that's hurt us," Stewart said. "We're doing everything we can to help him, but you're careful to not try to reinvent the wheel all of a sudden in four weeks and get yourself in worse position."
Though he's still smarting a little from his error in the closing laps of the road race at Sonoma in June that cost him his first Cup victory, Marcos Ambrose picked up where he left off. He topped the speed charts for a while during Friday's final practice and again loomed as a real threat for that breakthrough victory.
"I think we are all focused on the job at hand," said Ambrose, who stalled his No. 47 while leading under a late caution at Sonoma, was unable to keep pace, and had to restart seventh when he couldn't get it refired. "We can't go back and remember what happened at Sonoma. We've just got to move forward with it and not let it impact our weekend."
The Cup series races twice each year on road courses, and the Sonoma race in June turned into a crashfest with Jeff Gordon, who has a NASCAR-record nine road course wins, angering Martin Truex Jr. and Elliott Sadler with some aggressive driving late in the race.
Though the tracks are different, tempers often flare at both. Sonoma has several slow corners where the cars regularly make contact, while Watkins Glen is a high-speed circuit that has featured its share of dustups — Stewart and Gordon in 2000 perhaps the most memorable after a collision two laps into the race — and a pair of devastating crashes the past two years.
NASCAR and WGI officials are hopeful the safety improvements made in the offseason will short-circuit the violent crashes. SAFER barriers have been installed, grass runoff areas have been paved to cut down on the number of cautions, and guard rails have been moved back.
When NASCAR instituted double-file restarts last year before the first race at Pocono, most expected them to create a lot of action at Watkins Glen, especially in the wide 90-degree first turn at the end of the front straightaway, a prime passing zone. So far, that action has been somewhat subdued at The Glen.
"This track does have more room than Sonoma and is more forgiving," Matt Kenseth said. "Double file restarts at road courses aren't a lot of fun for the drivers, but they are fun to watch for everyone else. In turn one there is a lot of room to get through there, but ..."