Compared to last year, Clint Bowyer hopes for a little less drama Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but he wouldn’t mind the same result.
Five days after the 2019 season-opening Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series took to the track for Friday qualifying at Atlanta. Instead of flying Thursday night, Bowyer, hoping to spend a few more hours with the family, decided to fly down from his Charlotte, North Carolina-area residence Friday morning in time for the first practice session at 11:35 a.m.
Only problem was the plane he planned to use had a problem and couldn’t fly.
That sent Bowyer into a flurry of travel arrangements that would make actors John Candy and Dan Ackroyd of the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” proud. Bowyer happened to catch a ride with a pilot who was flying to Atlanta for business and the drama ended with Bowyer landing at a downtown Atlanta airport, then driving nearly an hour to the Hampton, Georgia racetrack and arriving just minutes before practice was to begin.
“That was way closer than I ever want to cut it,” Bowyer said with a laugh. “We were all pretty nervous.”
The episode didn’t serve as a distraction.
Hours later, Bowyer put the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Ford Mustang third on the grid by qualifying less than two-tenths of a second behind SHR teammate Aric Almirola, who won the pole. Bowyer went on to finish fifth in Sunday’s 500-mile race. It was his second consecutive top-five and seventh top-10 in 19 career Cup Series starts at Atlanta.
“Our run wasn’t pretty last year but we got a good finish,” Bowyer said. “I knew our car had great speed, obviously, from practice and qualifying. Racing is a different beast, especially at Atlanta. You have to take care of those Goodyear tires. The way I had it, it felt like I was on top of the track skating around too much. We made good air-pressure adjustments and got the grip level back in my racecar to where I could compete. It is just weird. You see cars that are kind of up, cars that are down, cars that are dragging, cars that aren’t. There is no track that we go to anymore that is as slick as this and as hard on tires.”
Bowyer said the rules and tire compound changes over the years at the 1.54-mile oval have changed the way drivers try to preserve their tires.
“Your tire management used to come from your throttle pedal,” Bowyer said. “Now, your speed and everything else are all wide open, so your tire management comes through the way you and your team get the balance on your racecar instead of you and your car doing the managing with the throttle pedal. You don’t lean on the wheel unless you have to and, if you have to, you better not have to for very long. The game has changed. When they took the horsepower away, the tire management and Goodyear changing the tire has drastically changed that aspect.”
This weekend’s race marks the first in the eastern half of the country since the rain-delayed, season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, where Bowyer finished sixth. Since then, the Cup Series held events in Las Vegas, Southern California and Phoenix. Bowyer arrives at Atlanta 13th in points. Last weekend at Phoenix Raceway, he qualified 18th, then charged to the front on race day, running as high as second in the closing stages before finishing a season-best fifth.
Bowyer goes to battle at Atlanta carrying the black-and-red paint scheme of Haas Automation, Inc. Haas Automation is America’s leading builder of CNC machine tools. Founded by Gene Haas in 1983, Haas Automation manufactures a complete line of vertical and horizontal machining centers, turning centers and rotary tables and indexers. All Haas products are built in the company’s 1.1 million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Oxnard, California, and distributed through a worldwide network of Haas Factory Outlets.
CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Haas Automation Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Are drivers taking precautions with the coronavirus in terms of autographs and things like that?
“I think everybody sees the headlines and reads the news just like anybody else. From what I can tell, there are a lot of unknowns and mixed feelings. Some people say it is bad and the next person says it is nothing but a cold. I treat my fans no differently than the next guy. I am going to shake his hand and appreciate him being here.”
What are your thoughts on Atlanta?
“I love Atlanta. I think everybody likes Atlanta. If you are a racecar driver, you get up on the wheel and are slipping and sliding around. You work your ass off there. That is what you look for in a racetrack. Vegas, I really struggled there. The hardest thing to do was to not overdrive it. Coming from a dirt background, the harder you drive her, the faster she goes. The harder you work, the faster it goes. With that thing and the speed you are going and the aero platform you have, it is very easy to overdrive the car and blow through the grip in the tires.”
This year, it seems if a car is fast in qualifying, it won’t be fast in the race. Are you experiencing that?
“Really, your aero platform and all that stuff has to jive. Your aero has to communicate and work well with your chassis balance, and vice versa. It’s the total package. It’s not just that you missed it with 100 pounds too much right-rear spring, or 50 too much of left-rear wedge, or a track bar adjustment. It’s all tied together from the aero side of things and the chassis side of things. They really have to work well together. If not, you are spinning your wheels.”