CHARLOTTE, N.C. &

Few considered Clint Bowyer a legitimate title contender when the Chase for the championship began six weeks ago.




The first-time Chase qualifier was winless in his Nextel Cup career, and ranked last out of 12 drivers when the standings were reset. Las Vegas oddsmakers listed him as a 30-to-1 long shot to win the title.




Then he stormed out of the gates, scoring his first career win in the Chase-opening race at New Hampshire to jump up in the standings and stake a claim to the title. A month later, he still had not folded and was just 14 points out of the lead.




"We're not out of this thing by any means," he confidently told reporters before a race at Talladega. "You're still thinking that we're going to bobble and make mistakes. And we're going to prove you wrong."




With just four races to go, Bowyer has indeed proved everyone wrong.




His Richard Childress Racing team has shown a radical improvement in performance, notching four top-10 finishes through the first six Chase races. He's finished second twice &

including a near-win at his home track in Kansas and a career-best finish at Charlotte &

and hasn't been lower than 12th since the Chase began.




Yet he's still a long shot to win the title.




Despite doing everything right on the race track, Bowyer has faded from legitimate title contention because of the unbelievable performances of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. The duo have combined to win the past three races to pull away from the Chase field.




In any other season, Bowyer would be within striking distance of the points lead. But in this year of Hendrick dominance, he's a fading 115 points back in third place.




But the kid from Kansas isn't giving up.




"In my mind and our race team's minds we're definitely not the odd man out," Bowyer said. "We're close enough we can win this thing."




If Gordon or Johnson should suddenly self-destruct, Bowyer most certainly could win the title. He's got a solid hold on third place, where he leads two-time series champion Tony Stewart by 134 points. Assuming he can maintain his pace, he's in striking distance if the Hendrick cars stumble.




It's forced Bowyer and his Gil Martin-led crew to set new goals. The second-year team started its first Chase hoping for a top-five finish in the final standings. But the breakthrough win at New Hampshire changed their thinking.




"Starting the Chase, we didn't know what to expect. I didn't know where to set my goals," he said. "If we could finish in the top five this year, our second year, that would be a successful year. We sat on two poles. We got in the Chase. I'd be content with that year.




"But that first win changes everything. You go from maybe a 10th place so you can go to the (awards) banquet to, 'Hey, we're in contention for a championship and we're going to be greedy and go after it.' "




This run has not been uneventful. Bowyer had to concede the win to Greg Biffle at Kansas, when he told his team to tell NASCAR that darkening sky made it too difficult to finish the race under green. finishing under caution, Bowyer had no shot to run Biffle down for the win.




And he had to nurse his car home at Talladega, where his sick engine was just minutes from blowing up when he crossed the finish line in 11th. It was a nerve-racking experience for Bowyer, who said he felt sick to his stomach when five motors from the same batch failed in other cars.




He's never faltered during the experience, staying calm each week while facing the challenges of the Chase with a dry wit the industry is just now witnessing.




Bottom line, Bowyer has thrived in his first Chase experience.




"I just enjoy it. I like the pressure," he said. "You're seeing what you're made out of it. It's so much fun to be in that situation, not only yourself but everybody around you. We're all forced in this situation now and we've got to focus and work hard. There's probably nobody on my team anymore that's staying out late and having fun, and I know my life's changed just in the last month and a half.




"You owe it to your guys and you owe it to everybody to try to do everything you could possibly do in your power to try to win this thing for them, and they're doing the same thing."