They might have been the best three laps of Clint Bowyer’s career.
Bowyer’s No. 14 Haas Automation Ford Fusion had just taken the lead during the break before the final stage of the June 10 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. Rain clouds out of the northeast drew closer, spitting a fine mist with most of the 39-car field suspecting the race wouldn’t last much longer.
Bowyer held the lead but only because his crew chief Mike Bugarewicz elected to take two tires while most of the field took four.
“When we were coming on pit road, I was 100 percent sure two tires was the right call,” Bugarewicz said. “We got about three quarters of the way down pit road, I was about 70 percent sure. When he slid into the pit box, I was about 50 percent sure. By then, we were leaving. It was too late.”
It was up to Bowyer to hold the position just ahead of his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) teammate Kevin Harvick who had led 49 laps – more than any other driver.
Bowyer admitted he had his doubts.
“I looked in the mirror – everybody behind me is on four tires,” Bowyer said. “(I’m thinking that) I don’t know what you’re looking at, but there’s an army of people on pit road who saw the same forecast, same radar, they took four.”
The green flag waved and Bowyer drove as hard as he could for three and a half laps. He edged just ahead of Harvick before the rain fell hard enough for NASCAR to end the race with 67 laps remaining, giving Bowyer his 10th career victory and second of the 2018 season.
“I knew, if we could get the lead, we had a decent shot of holding them off,” Bowyer said. “Fortunately, we did. We were racing for the win. I couldn’t have held him off had it gone another lap.”
Kurt Busch’s third-place finish gave SHR its first 1-2-3 finish – the first since Roush-Fenway Racing’s trifecta in September 2008 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
Bowyer’s Michigan victory came on a gamble, but it wasn’t a fluke. He finished second in the first stage and turned in top-three lap times throughout the race. The key was track position and that’s likely to be the case again this weekend when the Cup Series returns to Michigan for Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400.
Track position – two words that will be heard a lot of this weekend.
“At the end of the day, Michigan is all about track position. If you lose that track position, it’s a fight to try and get back up there,” Bugarewicz said when asked about the strategic keys to victory at Michigan. “You look at the restarts, they are brutal. Those guys are four-wide, gouging, trying to get every spot they can. If you’re going to gain spots, that’s where you’re going to gain the majority of them. Throughout the fuel run, you might gain one or two. Keeping the track position, I think, is key all day long.”
Bowyer arrives at Michigan after an 11th-place finish on the road course at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International last weekend. It was another respectable finish in a season that has seen Bowyer win twice, post six top-five finishes and 10 top-10s. Bowyer is fifth in points and owns the fourth-most playoff points as the regular season winds down with just four races remaining.
Bowyer would like nothing more than to add a third victory to that 2018 resume and roll into the playoffs with momentum from another victory at Michigan. Driving an SHR Ford, gaining late-race track position and driving the best laps of his career certainly could be the recipe for success once again.
CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What are your thoughts on SHR running 1-2-3 at Michigan in June?
“Remember, Michigan is an aero track, a horsepower track, and it’s a demanding racetrack on your equipment. Plus, as drivers, you have to be able to hit your marks and things like that because 217 mph is fast no matter what type of motorsport you are racing. That’s really fast in NASCAR. When we finished first with Kevin and Kurt behind us, it was just awesome. We got out and gave each other hugs. We were truly, genuinely happy for one another. That’s what it takes. That’s what it takes to push you to another level. Working together, the communication, pushing each other each week. It’s not just Kevin, Kurt, Aric (Almirola) and I. It’s our teams, our crew chiefs, our pit crews, everybody who raises the bar for everybody involved. It’s cool to see.”