Clint Bowyer couldn’t wait to race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California last weekend. It had long been one of his favorite tracks and, even with a 17th-place qualifying effort Friday, he remained confident throughout the weekend.
“I think we can win this race tomorrow,” Bowyer told a gathering of somewhat skeptical media minutes after a frustrating practice Saturday morning. But, after some late-night phone calls and meetings, Bowyer and crew chief Mike “Buga” Bugarewicz came up with a race setup that saw the No. 14 Ford run in the top-five throughout the 400-mile race.
Bowyer scored sixth- and fourth-place finishes in the first two stages of Sunday’s Auto Club 400, then rallied from sixth to third in overtime to record his best finish at his new Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team and a personal best since a third-place finish at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in 2015. Sunday’s performance moved Bowyer to eighth in the standings – the highest he has been since leaving the 2015 Daytona 500.
“We never showed the speed in practice, but I wasn’t worried about it because I knew the car was really comfortable on the long run and things like that,” he said.
Since taking over the No. 14 from three-time champion Tony Stewart, the normally ebullient Bowyer has ratcheted up his excitement, and performances like last weekend will only add to his enthusiasm. He credits Ford Performance, Roush-Yates Engines and his new team with the turnaround.
“I appreciate everybody’s hard work at Stewart-Haas Racing,” Bowyer said. “Having these teammates and having this group behind you, the organization and the teamwork, it’s just amazing to be a part of it at this point in my career. Thanks to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart for giving me this opportunity. It means a lot to me to be in this 14. I have a lot of fun with these guys. Buga and all these guys mean business. It’s a confidence thing right now, a momentum-builder, and we’re getting closer.”
This week, Bowyer turns his attention to another of his favorite tracks – Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Not only does he like the flat, half-mile track, it’s sort of a home race for the Emporia, Kansas native but current resident of Clemmons, North Carolina.
“It’s 40 minutes from the house,” he said. “You know, finally get home to see my family and everything else. To bring everybody up there, drive to the racetrack every day, sleep in your own bed, I mean, it’s just a fun, fun weekend. Fun racetrack. It’s old-school racing at its finest. I’ve been close so many times there. It’s one that I want to win more than anything. With this momentum and the confidence we take from here, maybe we can.”
Bowyer has come close to bringing home a grandfather clock Martinsville presents the race winner, but he’s yet to add the clock to his trophy case. He led 154 laps during the fall 2012 race amid a string of five consecutive top-10s at Martinsville. He owns four top-five finishes and 12 top-10s and has led 356 laps at the southern Virginia track.
SHR owns three victories – Ryan Newman in April 2012, Tony Stewart in October 2011 and Kurt Busch in March 2014 – six top-five finishes and 17 top-10s in 46 starts at Martinsville, and SHR cars have led 504 laps there.
“I’ve run really well at Martinsville several times where I thought we were the fastest car a few times, and especially like in 2012 and 2013, and I really enjoy that racetrack,” Bowyer said. “I look forward to it every year and it’s one track I feel like I can win at and win at if the equipment is underneath me and we make good calls and I make good decisions and take care of the car on the racetrack. I feel like that’s a track we can win and bring one of those clocks home.”
Could last week’s impressive run lead to bigger and better results as the 2017 progresses for the No. 14 driver and crew?
“Hell yeah. It better be coming,” Bowyer said with a laugh. “When you’ve got a team like this that’s organized and as good as it is, it better be.”
CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Haas Automation Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How weird is it to have Tony Stewart on your radio during a race?
“It is weird, still. Look at him. He’s ready. You could put him in a firesuit. You know he’d go out there and get the job done in that 14 car. To give me the opportunity is super-cool. To have him on the box is really cool. It’s neat to see a smile on his face. I really believe he just looks happy. He looks comfortable, you know, at ease. I mean, the guy, that’s a long time – that’s a long career to be in any kind of sport. He put his time in. He’s an owner now, still a part of it. That’s the coolest thing about his gig right now. He’s still a part of this sport. Maybe in the biggest way he’s ever been.”