There are fresh starts in sports, and then there is Clint Bowyer’s fresh start this season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
No, it’s not a clean break for the favorite son of Emporia, Kan. And no, his actions in last year’s regular-season finale — he played a key role amid a web of finishing-order fiddling by his Michael Waltrip Racing team that ignited the sport’s biggest controversy in years — haven’t been completely forgotten.
But when Bowyer fires his Toyota engine and rolls away from pit road to start the 2014 season at Daytona International Speedway, he will at least have broken the calendar connection to the events that left him so defensive and his MWR team in such shambles. This is a new year, and every day is a little farther from a night of itchy arms and questionable pit stops that left him — and NASCAR — with quite the black eye.
Bowyer, of course, has tried to get past it since the night it happened. The public relations part worked pretty well — he basically went silent for much of last year’s final 10 weeks — but the competition side didn’t do much. Of course, that might have been helpful, too. Bowyer led just 69 laps in the Chase and finished in the top 5 only twice. He wasn’t exactly a front and center target for miffed fans.
In fact, Bowyer enters 2014 coming off a winless season for the first time since his 2009 campaign with Richard Childress Racing. For a driver who came so close to the title in 2012 — with three wins and a second-place points finish — the shutout was a bit of a surprise.
Winning is something Bowyer will likely fix early this year. He’s become something of a short track ace, with four top-5 finishes in six races at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond last season, and could very easily end his winless streak on NASCAR’s smallest venues. But title contention? That’s a tougher go, as Bowyer will drive without a critical teammate who had worked alongside him in his first two seasons at MWR.
Thanks to the Richmond scandal, Martin Truex Jr. departed after major sponsor NAPA decided the negative publicity of the event was too much, dropping support at the close of last season. Truex was forced to scramble for a full-time ride this year and wound up in the No. 78 Chevrolet fielded by Furniture Row Racing.
It’s hard to say if Truex and Bowyer were incredibly close — there was no real public emotion from either about the unplanned separation — but there is little doubt that they had built common ground on how to work together for setups as teammates. Relationships like that naturally take time to build. Now, Bowyer must adjust to Brian Vickers, the part-timer with the team who earned a full-time ride after winning at Loudon in July. Meanwhile, team co-owners Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman have put smiley faces on the situation, saying two streamlined teams can still be successful in NASCAR (see: Team Penske).
There’s truth to that. It’s not a drastic setback, but it’s a new and unexpected layer of complexity. Plus, don’t underestimate the cost to MWR of losing such a significant moneymaker like NAPA. The team had to lay off employees as a result, which could mean fewer resources devoted to finding speed. Even Vickers, returning from blood clots, is a bit of a question mark; one health problem leaves Bowyer the lone ranger (Jeff Burton, hired part-time, will run only a handful of races).
Despite it all, MWR’s top driver should fully expect to be a Chaser for the fourth time in the last five seasons thanks to continued consistency and a sport-mandated easier road to qualification. Bowyer pulled off a fairly remarkable feat from late 2006 to early 2010, when he failed to finish only one of 113 races. After six DNFs in his final year at RCR in 2011, Bowyer has steadily been improving in that department again with four DNFs in 2012 and two last year.
There’s little doubt that Bowyer used that foundation to shape himself into a pretty secure Chase spot last season, as he averaged a modest regular-season finish of 12.4. He did match his career best in top-5 finishes last season (10) and had the most lead-lap finishes of his career (32).
While Bowyer still hasn’t completely emerged from the dark cloud last season brought, NASCAR’s continued tinkering with the Chase format in the offseason has significantly shifted fans’ focus. If the on-track trends continue, Bowyer will be just fine by the time the series returns to the scene of the crime, in Richmond, for a second time.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Clint is very easy to talk to, and that makes him a sponsor’s dream,” a competing crew chief says. “He’s on the verge of being a championship driver. He’s proven he can win on several types (of track) — most likely due to his dirt track background, which gives him excellent car control. Bowyer overcame the runner-up jinx and had a strong run in the points again last season.”
“His team is in turmoil,” another counters. “If he does anything remotely suspicious this season, he’s going to get examined worse than a TSA strip search. MWR has cut back on employees, and the reduced resources are going to make it more difficult to win. … Also, he is now engaged. There are many people who think having a woman that involved in your life can be detrimental.”
“I bet he’s glad that’s all over,” a media member says, referring to last year’s Richmond controversy. “I really don’t know what to think about MWR right now, though I believe Bowyer can rise above any deficiencies. He should be entering his peak from a career abilities perspective, but I don’t think too much of (Brian) Vickers as a teammate — but honestly, he’s not much different than (Martin) Truex.”
Looking at Checkers: All jokes about Richmond aside, his two wins and eight top 10s in 14 CoT/Gen-6 era races ain’t bad. In fact, they’re pretty darn good.
Pretty Solid Pick: And his CoT/Gen-6 era results at Talladega — two wins, eight top 10s — are eerily similar to the Richmond numbers.
Good Sleeper Pick: We’re thinking that witty quips about under-the-radar road course winners have expired since the likes of our boy here, along with Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, have loosened the stranglehold formerly held by the Stewarts, Gordons and Ambroses.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Darlington. It’s always been Darlington.
Insider Tip: The career numbers may not yet reflect it, but give Bowyer the horses and he’ll drive anything to the front. A classic “jack of all tracks, master of none.”
No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Sponsors: 5-Hour Energy/Peak Motor Oil/AAA Mid-Atlantic
Owners: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman/Johnny Harris
Crew Chief: Brian Pattie
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 2nd (2012)
Hometown: Emporia, Kan.
Born: May 30, 1979
Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Bowyer courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro