Denny Hamlin is third in the season standings and still very much in the running for the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship, so it isn’t much of a surprise that he’s leading the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings with three races to go.

Hamlin’s terrific season, including three poles and two race victories, has overshadowed a solid year for Richard Childress Racing’s Clint Bowyer, second in the rookie standings and 18th in the points.

Bowyer, who finished second in his first full season in the Busch Series last year, is also third in the Busch standings in 2006, 76 points ahead of, you guessed it, Hamlin.

For Bowyer, who has three top fives and nine top 10s in 32 Cup starts, this has been a solid learning year. But he is getting a little impatient for more.

“Our win is around the corner,” Bowyer said. “It’s starting to show.

“We’re leading laps and we’re racing in the top five. When you start doing those things on a consistent basis, you’re going to get a win sooner or later. I think we can get one by the end of the year.”

That much-anticipated victory could come as soon as Sunday in the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, where Bowyer ran well but finished 19th last spring in his first Cup start at the Fort Worth track.

“We had a good car and were headed for a decent finish and got wrecked on the last lap,” he explained. “It’s frustrating to get wrecked any time.

“It’s kind of like I was saying at Martinsville: You wreck 30 laps into the race and have to drive the car for the rest of the race all torn up with a crutch. Then on the other hand, you’ve raced hard and busted your tail all day long and get wrecked on the last lap and it becomes all for nothing. I’m not sure which one is worse.”

One reason Bowyer heads into the weekend with optimism is that he will be driving RCR chassis No. 170.

This is the same No. 07 Chevrolet that carried Bowyer to a career-best third-place finish at California Speedway in September and a fourth-place finish at Indianapolis in August. He was running third in the same car at Michigan in August when engine failure with three laps to go sent him tumbling to 33rd.

Last month at Kansas, Bowyer led 43 laps in the same car on the way to a ninth-place finish.

“We know we have a good car, so we just need to close the deal this weekend,” he said.

OH FOR: Jeff Gordon has won 75 races in his Cup career. The only active tracks at which he has not taken a checkered flag are Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, coincidentally the three tracks remaining on the 2006 schedule.

Gordon, coming off a sixth-place finish at Atlanta, heads to Texas sixth in the Chase for the championship, 146 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

He already has notched a win this season at Chicagoland Speedway, the only other track where he had yet to win coming into the year. A victory at Texas would be sweet, and it could potentially vault him back into the title race.

“This is a difficult race track,” Gordon said. “It’s very fast, the transitions in the corners are very abrupt and the walls come at you pretty fast. It’s a track that challenges all of us, but one that I enjoy.

“I’m looking forward to this weekend’s race, and having two races a year here will help us get our first win.”

Even after finishing 22nd here earlier this year, Gordon remains optimistic heading into Sunday.

“I’ve said from the beginning that this race was the one I was most concerned about performance-wise during the Chase,” Gordon explained. “We don’t have a good track record here recently, which gives us concern. But we’ve made a lot of changes with the car, the setups and the team, and our intermediate (track) program has improved since we last visited Texas.”

TOP BUSCHWHACKER: Kevin Harvick has done double duty this season, running full-time in both Cup and Busch, and the results have been pretty darn good.

He goes into the Dickies 500 sixth in the Cup standings, 121 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. In Busch, Harvick had an overpowering season. He wrapped up his second Busch title three weeks ago in Charlotte, won his eighth race of the season last weekend in Atlanta and headed into Saturday’s race at Texas leading second-place Carl Edwards by a mind-boggling 790 points.

Cup drivers have dominated the Busch races and standings for years, earning the nickname Buschwhackers. The top five in the current points, and eight of the top 10, are Cup regulars.

“Well, I think the Busch Series is kind of in the middle of a mid-life crisis, I think you could say,” Harvick said when asked how fair that is to the regulars in what is supposed to be steppingstone series to Cup.

He pointed out that, besides the drivers, a lot of the teams and sponsors from Cup also are involved in Busch on a weekly basis.

“I think it would be good for the series to be able to have the guys that are racing week in and week out that aren’t in the Cup series be able to have a story behind them, to have something that everybody can talk about on TV and the sponsors are interested in,” Harvick said. “It’s a little bit tough right now from a Busch team owner’s standpoint to sell that to a sponsor and understand that completely.

“But, from a driver’s standpoint, it’s great for me because I can race both schedules and race as much as I want to. And I’ve been fortunate to be successful at it. I think it’s what the people want to see in the grandstands, and the racetracks love it and everybody likes it, but I don’t know it’s the best thing for the series in the long run.”

STAT OF THE WEEK: Five of the 10 drivers in the Chase have scored one victory at Texas, including spring race winner Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth.

Martin and Jeff Gordon lead all Chase drivers in top-five finishes at Texas with four, while Martin and Earnhardt have the most top 10s among the Chasers with six.

AP-ES-11-02-06 1353EST

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