Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer in epic battle for Chase berth

Mark Martin has been in Clint Bowyer’s rearview mirror since Chicago when a top five-finish elevated the No. 33 Richard Childress racer into the Chase Zone for the first time in five races.

After Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International, the positions reversed.

With patience, perseverance and a little bit of luck, Martin, 51, took over the 12th and final position in the Chase Zone on Sunday. What had been a 34-point deficit for the veteran racer before the race turned into 10-marker advantage for Martin.

Martin entered The Glen with an average qualifying effort of 7.8. In time trials Saturday, his best effort offered a 24th-place result. The No. 5 team then discovered fluid leaking from the brakes prior to the race and the car was one of the last to make it to the grid.

Bowyer started 34th but had wheeled his car into the top15 when a truck arm mount broke on the car four laps after his green-flag pit stop. Luckily for Bowyer, 31, the caution came out for debris off his car, allowing the No. 33 Cheerios team rushed to weld the frame back together.

While Bowyer was off the track, Martin, who had not made his second pit stop with the leaders, assumed the point and picked up five bonus points. He pitted before the race restarted on Lap 65 and salvaged a 19th-place finish.

Bowyer returned to action in 36th position, three laps down after repairs, but gained two laps and four spots over the final 26 laps. Despite the tremendous effort by the No. 33 team, Bowyer couldn’t mask his “frustration“ in finishing 32nd.

“I can’t ever qualify very good here, but I can always get back up through them in a race,” Bowyer said of his initial run. “I knew I would be able to. It’s disappointing.

“The guys did a good job getting it welded up and getting back out there. As far as I’m concerned, it is catastrophic."

Still, Bowyer’s confident he can make up ground over the next four races before the start of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. While neither driver exhibited stellar performances at Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond earlier this season — sites of the four races leading up to the start of NASCAR’s playoff — Bowyer’s average of 24.25 was slightly higher than Martin’s 27.25.

Martin remained optimistic following his uncharacteristic run at The Glen. The veteran, who fought teammate Jimmie Johnson for the title last season, has not posted the results this year that he enjoyed during his first year with the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team. Certainly, the rumors of Kasey Kahne taking over his ride prematurely next season have proved to be a disruption to the team since April.

Still, Martin is realistic about the challenges over the next four races. He has five wins at Michigan, the most recent coming June, 2009. His last win at Richmond was 1990 — when Bowyer was 10 — but Martin has multiple wins at Bristol and Atlanta, as well, and started from the pole at both tracks in 2009.

“We’re making progress,” Martin said. “We’re not where we need to be but the last three weeks before we got to the road course, we’re improving each week so we hope to be strong a Michigan. We’re battling as hard as we can go.

“We’ve got to pick it up. We’ve got to keep getting better. We got better at Chicago, Indy and Pocono. Now we need to get better at Michigan. If we can do that, keep gaining momentum in these last four, then we’ve got a shot at it. But if we trip up and stumble anywhere, it will be curtains.”

Bowyer had his opportunity to gain ground on Martin Sunday before the parts failure. His crew chief Shane Wilson acknowledges the team has had difficulty capitalizing on opportunities lately. But he’s encouraged by the team’s record on the upcoming tracks. Bowyer scored top-10 finishes in both Michigan races in 2009. He has two top-fives and four top-10 finishes at Bristol and four sixth-place finishes at Atlanta.

“The guys did a great job," Wilson said. "I commend them for their effort. I feel bad that we haven’t had the finishes we deserved sometimes because we’re a better team than we’re at right now. It’s just discouraging right now.

“We have to make as many points as we can. We’re on pace to do that. We had a better car than the 5 (of Martin). We just have to go to Michigan and do the same thing.”

If the battle comes down to Richmond, Bowyer could have a slight advantage. Although he’s won just one race at the .75-miler, his average finish is 10.2 and he’s completed every lap raced. Martin’s average is 12th and he’s led 420 laps.

If Martin can repeat his pole-winning performance from last season at Richmond, then it might be game over for his opponent and a fitting way to celebrate his 50th start at the track.