Racetracks across the Monster Energy NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit have embarked on ambitious capital improvement projects in recent years to make the country’s most popular form of motorsports even more entertaining for fans and competitors.
Tracks committed tens of millions of dollars toward more comfortable stands, track reconfigurations, new fan zones, better cellular and Wi-Fi signals and improved traffic flow to make for the ultimate experience. So it’s funny when No. 14 Haas Automation Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) driver Clint Bowyer said drivers and the 70,000 fans attending Sunday’s 500-mile race at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be the biggest winners from an action the track’s management decided not to do in 2018 – repaving the 21-year-old racing surface.
“I thought it was a great idea to patch the up girl and hold on as long as possible because a lot of us aren’t fans of repaves,” said Bowyer, who speaks for a majority of drivers when it comes to a vote on whether to repave the 1.54-mile track in Hampton, Georgia. “Ever since I have been in the sport, it seems like Atlanta is the most worn-out track but always produced some of the best racing.”
New pavement usually creates much better grip and faster speeds that often result in a one-groove racetrack on which passing is difficult. That typically results in single-file racing, something Bowyer says neither drivers nor fans enjoy for 500 miles. He says the Atlanta track, where the Cup Series will battle Sunday, is just the opposite. Its slick surface is difficult to navigate but offers several grooves and plenty of passing opportunities.
Bowyer said it doesn’t take long to remember he is racing at Atlanta.
“Atlanta is just one of those places where you get on the track and, after the first lap, you are like, ‘Oh my, something is drastically wrong,’ and you almost want to pit,” he said. “Then you look up and you are like third on the board and it felt like 53rd. It’s crazy how worn out the track is, but that is what makes for good racing and it lets us put on such a great show for a long time.”
Bowyer and SHR’s No. 14 team led by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz hope to improve upon their 15th-place finish posted at last weekend’s Daytona 500, where Bowyer suffered engine issues midway through the race. Bowyer showed his No. 14 Ford was one of the fastest on the track and, after avoiding two multicar accidents, appeared ready to race for the lead in the final stages.
“That’s last week and we are on to Atlanta now,” he said. “It’s a very long season but we’re confident. We had a good Speedweeks in Daytona and I think that will continue this weekend in Atlanta and on the West Coast swing in the coming weeks.”
Bowyer is still looking for his first top-five at Atlanta, but that isn’t indicative of his performance history at the track. He led 52 laps at Atlanta during the March 2008 race before finishing sixth. The most heartbreaking moment at the track came in September 2013, when he led 48 of the first 192 laps before engine failure. In total, Bowyer has led 115 laps at Atlanta but only has four sixth-place finishes to show for the effort. Last year, he started 25th at Atlanta but quickly showed he had one of the fastest cars on the track by driving to third with just 85 laps remaining. Fender damage led to a cut tire and a brush with the wall with 50 laps remaining. Bowyer dropped to 15th but climbed to 11th by the time the checkered flag fell.
With the combination of SHR, Ford and a strong No. 14 team, Bowyer is a good bet to better that finish Sunday.
“We showed speed last year,” he said. “If we are that fast again, then I think we’ll have something for them.”
CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Haas Automation Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What is the mindset of drivers and team after leaving Daytona?
“Once we get the Daytona 500 out of the way, it’s Atlanta and it’s down to business time. I know it’s weird to say that. Yes, the Daytona 500 is the first race of the year and certainly the biggest race of the year, but it’s so unique from any other racetrack. We get to Atlanta and it’s that mile-and-a-half, fast track, but even it is very unique because it is so worn out and we don’t have anything like that anywhere we go, anymore. We just have to get through that, have a good balance on your racecar because it’s so slick you can’t afford to be tight, loose or anything else. We’ll just go and hopefully have another good run there.”
Will stage racing be more important at Atlanta?
“I think once we get down to business and get over the Daytona 500 – our crown jewel event – we all learn the importance of stage points. We will be full bore on getting as many stage points as possible. We saw how (Martin Truex Jr.) did that last year and we’ll try to do the same this year.”
Are you ready to win?
“I have always wanted to win. Once you get a taste of that, there is no going back from that. Last year, it was disappointing. My disappointment last year came from a lack of consistency. That has always been my M.O. and how I was always able to make the playoffs if I did, or compete for a championship if we did. It was through consistency and knocking on the door and not having bad runs. We were spraying it all over the place last year. We would have good runs and bad runs and I really look for Stewart-Haas to smooth those things out. That manufacturer change was the best thing, in my opinion, that they have done in a long time. You are going to have growing pains because you have to learn a whole new everything – from your database to the aero platform to all that stuff. To have that behind us, the winter, the offseason, was way easier. It was pretty chaotic last year. I think we have weathered that storm and we are ready.”