Typically, drivers can point to a particular race -- or even a moment within a race -- as the key to the ultimate success or failure of their season. But it's rare when it happens several days after the fact, and miles from Victory Lane.
But that was the case for Clint Bowyer in 2010. After ending an 88-race winless streak at New Hampshire to open the Chase, Bowyer's No. 33 Chevrolet was taken back to NASCAR's Research and Development center in North Carolina. And when the chassis was found by NASCAR inspectors to be outside of tolerances, the team's elation turned to frustration after being docked 150 points and having crew chief Shane Wilson suspended for four weeks.
Bowyer admitted many of the positives this season were a direct result of a miserable 2009, when the entire Richard Childress Racing stable failed to make it into the Chase.
"A lot of things that were changed in the offseason last year ended up being some of the best things that we have ever had happen at RCR, as far as the depth of the organization," Bowyer said. "The reasons that we found ourselves back in a hole, I don't think, will happen again. [Changes to] the engineering staff, reorganizing the competition director support to crew chiefs, just so many things have changed that I think ultimately will keep us from digging ourselves a hole."
The changes Bowyer mentioned made an immediate impact from the time the team unloaded the hauler at Daytona. Bowyer led 37 laps and finished fourth in the Daytona 500, then followed that up with back-to-back eighth-place finishes on the West Coast.
Bowyer was at his best on superspeedways in 2010. Five of his seven top-five finishes came on tracks of 2 miles or longer. His second victory of the season was at Talladega in October, the result of a last-lap, caution flag photo finish with teammate Kevin Harvick. There was no doubt Bowyer and his team were motivated to prove themselves worthy of another Victory Lane celebration.
"It is redemption," Bowyer said in his post-race news conference. "It finally puts [the New Hampshire penalty] behind me as a race car driver, as a person, and us as a race team."
It's clear the New Hampshire penalty was more than just one that cost the No. 33 team points and money. It eventually cost Bowyer his pit crew when they were asked to pit Harvick's car with five races remaining on the schedule.
"It was devastating to the momentum, your mojo," Bowyer said. "Everything that happens when something like that happens, it takes the wind out of your sails big-time."
"You lose your crew chief for four weeks, and that ultimately leads to us losing our over-the-wall pit crew. That was our ace-in-the-hole all season long. We lost them for the rest of the season."
What you learn at the end of one season can sometimes carry over to the next. In Bowyer's case, that was definitely true in 2010. And he expects nothing more than to build on this year's positives.
"Last season, despite how bad of a season it was, the last 10 races, we were back to running well," Bowyer said. "Competing, running up front and actually one of the three of us I thought was going to get a win inside that Chase. So I was pretty optimistic looking forward to this year.
"So this year with the success we've had, I feel like now we need to continue down the path we are on, improve on a few minor things. If we do that, we are going to be winning more races than we did this year and be even better."