It’s “de javu all over again” for Clint Bowyer.
For the second consecutive year, the Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) driver’s chances to advance to the Round of 12 in NASCAR’s playoffs comes down to his performance on the 2.28-mile, 17-turn “roval” road course at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, where the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series holds its third and final Round of 16 playoff race Sunday.
In 2018 Bowyer entered the first round’s final race 13th in points, just four markers outside the top-12 cutoff. A third-place finish was enough to propel Bowyer to the Round of 12. This weekend, he returns to the roval 14th in points but again needs to make up just four points to advance to the Round of 12.
Bowyer isn’t the only driver in the hot seat at Charlotte. Only three of the 16 playoff drivers have secured spots in the next round. There is only a 26-point difference between 15th and ninth in the standings.
“Charlotte is going to be fun for everybody involved,” said Bowyer, who is outside looking in because of a 25th-place finish after a late-race pit stop in the playoff opener Sept. 15 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, followed by a hard-fought eighth-place finish at Richmond (Va.) Raceway Saturday night.
“It’s do-or-die time. It’s the playoffs. You watch these football teams go through these playoffs and how exciting it is and it’s our turn to have those nerve-racking moments and do-or-die moments for your race team and your season, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Bowyer will have his work cut out for him on the sport’s newest layout.
“From the time you pull out on the track to the time you get off, it’s just sketchy,” he said. “You are just tip-toeing. There’s no room for error at all. The grip level isn’t great like in turn three. If you get to sliding a little bit getting in there and you look over at them tires, you realize there’s no room. If that thing gets out from under you, you are going to be in the fence and you are going to be in it hard. It’s not something you are going to limp (the car) away from.”
Now, for an even bigger scare for the drivers whose title bids will be on the line Sunday, Goodyear will make wet-weather tires available in the event of rain, making it even more challenging to navigate the high-speed oval portion of the track and the low-speed, twisting, left-and-right turns in the course’s infield. Wet-weather tires were last used in the NASCAR Xfinity Series event Aug. 4, 2018 at Watkins (N.Y.) Glen International.
Bowyer likes his chances on a road course. Since starting at SHR in the 2017 season, Bowyer has an average finish of 7.9 in seven road course races. Only five drivers have better average finishes on the Cup Series road courses since then.
In his 29 career starts on road courses at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International and the Charlotte roval, Bowyer has earned a victory, 11 top-five finishes and 16 top-10s.
Bowyer will drive the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Cummins Ford Mustang co-owned by Gene Haas Tony Stewart. Rush Truck Centers has been the primary partner on the No. 14 team since Bowyer arrived at SHR in 2017 and has been with the organization since 2010. The Texas-based company has used Bowyer and the team to appeal to NASCAR fans as one way to recruit the technicians it needs to operate the largest network of commercial truck and bus dealerships in the country, with locations in 22 states. According to Rush Truck Centers, the trucking industry is expected to need 200,000 diesel technicians over the next 10 years to keep up with maintenance demands.
Cummins is no stranger to victory lane with its racing lineage dating back to the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911, when company founder Clessie Cummins was on the pit crew of the race-winning Marmon Wasp of driver Ray Harroun. Since its founding in 1919, the company now employs approximately 58,600 people and serves customers in about 190 countries and territories through a network of some 500 company-owned and independent distributor locations and approximately 7,500 dealer locations. While Cummins is a corporation of complementary business segments that design, manufacture, distribute and service a broad portfolio of power solutions, it is best known for its diesel truck engines.
If Bowyer climbs into the top 12 of the playoff standings by the time the checkered flag falls Sunday, he’ll advance to the next round that begins Oct. 6 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
While he and a majority of the 16 playoff drivers hold their breath this Sunday, wondering whether the roval brings salvation or elimination, there’s one group of folks who are in for an exciting show – the race fans.
“We are all going to be sweating our rear ends off trying to make the Round of 12 while everybody in the stands and on television are going to be watching us lunatics wondering what’s going to happen,” he said. “I know I would be.”
CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Cummins Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What was last year like at the roval, trying to advance in the playoffs?
“A lot of unknowns going into something like the roval or any new racetrack or endeavor that we do with our sport, it’s always nerve-racking times. I think the roval, you get so busy in your days and living in the moment, living in that week, wherever that week may be, whether it’s leading up to the playoffs or before, you don’t think about the distant future until it becomes the near future. Once everyone got in the playoffs it was like, ‘All right, the playoffs have started. We’ve got the playoffs mindset. Let’s focus on these first couple of races and then, oh my God, the roval! What! Do you mean the roval is a cutoff race?’ That’s when it starts to become reality. It’s not that it wasn’t on the schedule punching you in the face every time, but it doesn’t register until it’s in the forefront and it’s real. You’re preparing for the roval, preparing for a track and a race a weekend you haven’t seen before, so it’s definitely nerve-racking. But, to be honest with you, I don’t know whether it’s my personality or driving style, I don’t know what it is but I always seem to be better in those situations than I am at a place that I’ve been to 100 times.”
Has your mentality changed to the must-win way of thinking?
“It’s kind of a must-win situation at all times. In life, if you wake up and say, ‘I don’t really need to win today,’ you’re probably going to suck.”
What is your roval strategy?
“We are just going to go there and do the best we can. I have confidence in this race team and we have the capability of going out there and winning the race and certainly we can move into the top 12.”
Not as a driver battling to advance to Round of 12, but as a race fan, what do you think of the roval?
“I’d buy a good ticket or get in front of a television and get that popcorn and whatever else out, because I expect those final laps Sunday are going to be some of the most memorable of the season. It’s probably going to be really calm for a while, but there will be a few late cautions and then it will be chaos. We hardly ever see anything like we are about to see. Like last year on the roval, nobody has any idea what to expect.”