Clint Bowyer wishes he was part of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 this weekend in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He also realizes his No. 14 Ford team has made significant progress since he started at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in 2017.
“We’ve had a great year getting to where we were part of this playoff situation and being in contention to be able to run for a championship,” Bowyer said moments after Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway near Phoenix. “There’s a lot of pride with (crew chief) Mike (Bugarewicz) and all the guys on the 14 car. It’s been a lot of fun to go to battle each and every week all across the country with these guys. Stewart-Haas Racing – I can’t say enough about the job the men and women have done at Stewart-Haas, getting all four cars in the playoffs and then, obviously, winning and being in victory lane, and everything Ford, Roush-Yates Racing and everybody involved has done for us. I’m proud of our season,”
To appreciate where the No. 14 team is now, it’s essential to know where it’s been.
Bowyer replaced three-time champion Tony Stewart in the No. 14 at SHR in 2017. The year saw the Emporia, Kansas native post three second-place finishes on his way to a year-end tally of six top-fives and 13 top-10s. His average finish of 15.5 was 11th best among full-time drivers competing in 2017, and it left him just shy of a spot in the NASCAR playoffs.
Bowyer was most disappointed the team never made it to victory lane despite a few near misses, but that changed in 2018.
The Bugarewicz-led team dominated the March 26 race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, leading 215 of 400 laps. Video of Bowyer’s young family running down the front stretch to join him in victory lane celebrating the end of a 190-race winless streak top the season’s highlight reel. Moments later, Bowyer went into the grandstands to celebrate with the Martinsville fans who stayed until the Monday raced that was postponed by rain Sunday.
And his 2018 victory lane celebrations weren’t over.
On June 10, a Bugarewicz pit strategy to take two tires, then some incredible wheel-to-wheel driving by Bowyer with SHR teammate Kevin Harvick led the No. 14 to prevail by a few feel before rain brought the race to an end. Those laps on only two fresh tires, trying to hold off the hard-charging Harvick with rain clouds closing in, might have been the best of Bowyer’s career. His 10 career victories tied him at 59th on the all-time win list with Sterling Marlin and Donnie Allison.
Bowyer’s NASCAR playoffs turned out to be quite a rocky but successful run. An accident in the playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway left him with a 23rd-place finish and doubt as to whether he would advance to the next round. But a 10th-place finish at Richmond (Va.) Raceway, combined with a third-place finish on the “roval” at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, allowed him to squeak into the Round of 12.
Hopes for a good start to the Round of 12 vanished with an extra pit stop, combined with a mechanical issue that led to an accident at Dover (Del.) International Speedway and a 35th-place finish. Again, Bowyer rebounded at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway with a second-place finish. A 13th-place finish at Kansas Speedway near Kansas City paved the way to the Round of 8.
Bowyer’s plans for a good start to the Round of 8 races and a repeat victory at Martinsville fell by the wayside with an ill-handling car and a late-race spin that netted a 21st-place finish. The second Round of 8 race was worse when first-lap contact with Denny Hamlin at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth forced him to the pits for a green-flag pit stop and a 26th-place finish. Knowing the No. 14 had to win at Phoenix, Bowyer raced from 16th to seventh before a cut tire led to an accident that ended his championship hopes.
Sunday won’t be merely an “exhibition race” for Bowyer. He’s 12th in points and would like to climb into the top-10 with a good run at Homestead and reward Rush Truck Centers and Haas Automation, the two partners whose decals have adorned the No. 14 most often in 2108 and again this weekend in the season finale.
And, as Bowyer points out, “A win Sunday will make for a fun off season.”
CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Describe your 2018 playoff run?
“Obviously, the playoffs haven’t really gone as smoothly as we wanted them to, haven’t gone as smoothly as our season has pretty much gone. At the end of the day, we’ve been a fifth- or sixth-place car all year long. We’ve been a fifth- or sixth-place team against the best of the best. We had some mishaps in the playoffs and things like that. Sometimes when you go for it, things go your way and sometimes they don’t, and a drastic measure one way or the other kind of changes the picture, points-wise, quite a bit. When you’re in the final eight, you go for broke and put all the cards on the table. A mishap at Texas really set us behind as far as the grand picture of the points were concerned, but it’s not really the situation you’re in, anyway. We were in a do-or-die situation and we went for it and came up short,”
Describe your 2018 season?
“At the end of the day, I’m proud of our year and proud of the work that we’ve put into this year. It’s been a great year for Ford. It’s been a great year for Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s been a great year for the 14 car getting back in victory lane for all of us. It was a long time coming for (crew chief) Mike (Bugarewicz) and all the guys on the 14 team. To get back to their winning ways and, certainly for me as a driver who hadn’t been in victory lane in a while, it was gratifying to get in victory lane a couple of times this year and knock on the door a few other times.”
What will Homestead be like for drivers not in the Championship 4?
“For those of us not in the Championship 4, Homestead is like the last day of school, but it’s still very important. Whenever you race, you want to win, whether it’s the season-ending Cup race or racing your brothers on dirt bikes in the backyard. Homestead is no different. There’s going to be a lot on the line with those guys racing for a championship, but the rest of us are going to race for a trophy, as well.”
Would a win this weekend be overshadowed by the championship?
“It’s tough to win these races, so anyone who takes the checkered flag Sunday is going to be more than happy. But, think of the momentum it builds. You spend the entire offseason knowing you are the most current winner. You’ll still be happy when you get to Daytona in February.”