By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
Clint Bowyer heard the critics loud and clear last year when the Richard Childress Racing driver squeaked into NASCAR's Chase for the championship by taking the 12th and final spot despite not winning a race.
It took Bowyer one glorious Sunday to shut them up.
Bowyer captured the first checkered flag of his Sprint Cup career during the fall race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last year, a win that propelled him to a career-best third-place finish in the season points race.
A year later, not much has changed.
Bowyer once again had to sweat it out, needing a 12th-place finish in Sunday's race at Richmond to grab one of the coveted Chase spots ahead of Kasey Kahne and David Ragan.
Yet under the new points system, Bowyer is seeded fifth for the beginning of this year's Chase, which starts on Sunday at the site of his breakthrough win. He'll head to the starting grid at New Hampshire trailing series leader Kyle Busch by 70 points.
"We come into this thing a little bit better than we did last year," Bowyer said. "Last year all the naysayers said: 'He's the only one in the Chase who has not won a race' and now we have won a race this year and you can't say that about us."
Bowyer's win at Richmond in May proved he's ready to compete at the front, but the road to the postseason has been bumpy. He spent most of the summer on the bubble, floating between spots 10-13 as his No. 07 Jack Daniels Chevrolet scrambled to find any consistency.
"We have struggled this summer, there's no way of getting around it," Bowyer said.
Yet when he needed to get it done, Bowyer found a way. He moved back into the top 12 for good with a seventh-place finish at Bristol and followed it up with a top-10 at Fontana and avoided disaster in Richmond to make the field.
Now that he's in, Bowyer sees no reason to think he can't recapture the magic that made him one of the circuit's hottest drivers last fall.
"Things have been looking for the better to catapult ourselves into this thing and it shows me that 'Hey, we can pick the program up again like we did last year and make some noise in this thing," he said.
Bowyer will have plenty of help. Teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton are also in the field, and even though each is gunning for their first series title, Bowyer expects all three to continue to work together to fight powerhouse teams at Joe Gibbs Racing (Busch, Denny Hamlin and two-time champion Tony Stewart) and Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.)
"I think you need to be teammates now more than ever," Bowyer said. "We need to lean on each other and learn as much as we can from each other week in and week out. You can't do this alone."
Bowyer pointed to the cohesion Johnson and Gordon showed while finishing one-two in the Chase last year, distancing themselves from the rest of the field by dominating down the stretch.
"They were every bit teammates in the Chase as they were all season and that's the way we need to be," he said. "We've got to make sure that we have three equal chances at running for this championship, and the only way we can do that is working together and sticking together."
Still, it'll be every driver for himself late Sunday afternoon. Bowyer learned last year what early success in the Chase can do. The last two months haven't been a whole lot of fun as his team has experimented with different setups trying to find the right combination.
Bowyer knows the guessing game has to end quickly if he wants to duplicate last year's surge. He has just one top-five since his win at Richmond and can't afford a slow start in the Chase if he's going to make a serious run at the crown.
"You've got to be able to run up front," he said. "If you don't, if you're not running in the top five and winning races, let's face it, you're not going to win the championship."
Not being one of the favorites, however, does give him a bit of freedom. Now that the pressure to make the Chase is off, he can focus on who's in front of him instead of constantly checking his rearview mirror.
"It's time for me to pull out all the stops and go for broke," he said. "Now that you're in this thing, you owe it to everybody, you don't want to be the 12th guy. We were the 12th guy coming in, and I want to be able to make sure that we're in this thing for a reason and not just to ride around."