16 drivers make NASCAR playoffs. Would 17th-place Clint Bowyer wreck a rival to get in?

NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer is currently 17th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff rankings, but only the top 16 drivers qualify for the postseason.
NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer is currently 17th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff rankings, but only the top 16 drivers qualify for the postseason.

Desperation? Clint Bowyer thought about it, and a fat smile escaped him.

Bowyer, a 13-year NASCAR veteran, understands his predicament. Sixteen drivers will qualify for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Championship Series, and with just two regular-season races to go, he isn’t one of them.

Specifically, he’s No. 17, just on the wrong side of the metaphorical bubble.

“The playoffs is a big thing, and I’ve been on both sides of it,” Bowyer said Tuesday. “I’ve been in it and made it all the way to second place ... and I’ve also been knocked out of it, you know what I mean?

“It rubs you a little bit raw.”

But days before Bowyer’s next race, at Darlington on Sunday, there was no talk of pressure. Instead, Bowyer was jovial, witty, sarcastic, and honest.

For example, in between interviews, an assistant asked for Bowyer’s order en route to Starbucks. Would he like almond milk? Or a horchata, or a latte, or the newest limited-edition frappuccino?

Bowyer, 38, stared blankly.

“Just coffee, please,” he said. “Black coffee.”

That simplicity has been endearing to fans over the years. That, and his driving talent, of course. While Bowyer has never won the Cup championship, but he finished second in 2012 and third in 2007.

But Bowyer hasn’t won a Cup series race since the Bank of America 500 in Charlotte back in October 2012, although he has come close, even this year. At Bristol in April, for example, he finished second behind Jimmie Johnson, and on July 1 at Daytona, when he was the runner-up to Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

“Second place is just first loser, right?” Bowyer said. “You look back at those second places now and you’re like, ‘that was a missed opportunity.’ Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve done something different.”

With two races left before the playoffs, 13 of the 16 spots have already been filled by drivers who have won races. Now it’s down to essentially four drivers – Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, and Bowyer – for three spots. Bowyer is 10th in points with two weekends to go, but he’ll almost certainly need a victory either at Darlington this weekend or at Richmond in the regular-season finale to extend his season.

Richmond has been the kinder of the two historically, as Bowyer has notched two victories there but none at Darlington.

So Bowyer is presented with a hypothetical. It goes like this:

Say he doesn’t win Darlington, and he has to win Richmond to make the playoffs. It’s the last lap, and he’s in second place, close enough to reach the leader’s bumper. Does he take the moral high road and settle, or does he hit him?

Bowyer answers the question, but he also shoots some sarcasm back afterward.

“You’ve gotta understand, you just set me up for failure,” Bowyer said, jokingly. “For the world in Charlotte, they’re gonna go, ‘What an ass.’

“You set me up for failure, so you make sure the rest of that quote goes in there, too.”

He’s right, there’s no good answer.

But what would he do? Wreck him or not?

“I would flip him,” Bowyer said. “Desperation sets in. Hopefully when he gets done flipping, he gets out and understands.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks