Clint Bowyer returns to short-track racing Sunday at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway with the same No. 14 Haas Automation Demo Days paint scheme, same crew chief and same pit crew that propelled him to victory March 26 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last raced on a track less than a mile in length.
But there’ll be a missing component when the Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) driver takes the green flag on the .533-mile, high banked oval in East Tennessee hoping he can win his second and SHR’s fifth race of the first nine races of the 2018 season.
“At Bristol you have to have the total package, a lot like I did in Martinsville,” Bowyer said. “I asked (No. 14 crew chief Mike Bugarewicz) if there was any way we could bring the Martinsville car to Bristol. He said no because I tore it up too much and they had to cut the body off of it. But, I’m not worried. We’ll have another hot rod at Bristol.”
Bowyer hasn’t won at Bristol, but he’s often near the front when the checkered flag falls. He owns seven top-five finishes and 11 top-10s and has led 137 laps in 24 starts. He finished second in this race in 2017, trailing winner Jimmie Johnson across the finish line by 1.199 seconds. He started fifth in the final stage of the August race at Bristol but handling issues and an unsuccessful gamble left him with a 19th-place finish.
For Bowyer to earn his 10th career Cup Series victory he’s going to have to outrace about 36 other cars, plus survive on the treacherous high-banked short track on which lap times normally run less than 16 seconds.
“There is no way to describe 500 laps at Bristol,” said Bowyer’s, whose No. 14 Ford will sport the identical paint scheme it wore in Martinsville featuring Haas Automation, the largest CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine-tool builder in North America.
“If your car is handling well, it’s manageable,” he said. “If it’s loose and you are midpack and there is someone in front of you who is erratic, you are tense and not breathing. You haven’t made it 10 laps and you are out of breath. You think, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m going to make it these 500 laps.’ Next thing you know, it’s lap 450 and you’re wishing it was 600 laps.”
Despite the challenge, Bowyer said Bristol remains one of his favorite races of the season. He said there is an atmosphere unlike no other track on the circuit.
“I want to celebrate in front of all those wild and crazy fans,” he said. “There’s no better atmosphere. They’re so close to you that you feel that environment. I’m telling you, during driver intros, you’re walking down there and it’s just the feeling that comes over you before you get in that car. It’s just something you don’t feel anywhere else. It’s because of the closeness of the fans to you. They’re all breathing down on you and expecting big things out of you, and you can’t wait to go out there and get in that coliseum and go to battle.”
Bowyer arrives at Bristol still on a high after winning at Martinsville, then following with a ninth-place run at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth last weekend. After starting third at Texas – his best qualifying effort of the season – Bowyer ran in the top-five most of the race until he was shuffled out of the pack on a late-race restart. He ran out of laps before he could regain the lost spot.
It’s been a stellar start to the season for SHR’s four Ford teams. In addition to winning four of seven races, all four Fords are in the top-12 – three in the top-eight – in the season standings. SHR has led 850 of 2,145 laps run.
“They are bringing some fast hot rods to the track each weekend and it’s a pleasure to drive,” Bowyer said. “I know when we unload at Bristol on Friday, we will be fast. That’s a great feeling for a driver.”
CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Haas Automation Demo Day Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How do you make your car go fast at Bristol?
“That baby’s got to turn it in the middle, man. It is so hard to get your car freed up enough to turn in the center of the corner, but not be too loose in, and then not smoke the tires up and off the corner. At Bristol, you have to have the total package, a lot like I did in Martinsville.”
GREG ZIPADELLI, SHR’s Vice-President of Competition:
Why the strong start to 2018 for all the SHR Fords?
“Everybody has worked really hard in the offseason, like every other team, but last year we were trying to figure out how to put motors in cars to make it to the racetrack, and that’s not a lie. I mean, it was that bad when we switched over to Ford. It was a lot of things that were a lot harder than we thought they were. This year, as a group, they’ve been able to work together and they’ve been able to work on a lot of little details, and I think it’s shown in the performance to start the year. But we’ve got a long year, so we’ve got to continue to work, continue to stay focused. We can’t take a deep breath or you’ll get passed in this sport.”
What are you most proud of in 2018?
“You know, I’ve been proud of the wins and the success we’ve had, but I’ve been more proud of the performance of all four cars so far this year when you look at them from a qualifying perspective, when you look at it a finishing perspective, when you look at where they are as a group in points, you know, that’s how. I’ll say I judge myself and the rest of us like this: the people at Stewart-Haas must continue to figure out ways to give all four of our teams the best stuff we can, and we’ve got to figure out how to continue to get our guys to work together and continue to make our stuff better.”