More than a year removed from “SpinGate” — NASCAR’s biggest controversy in a decade — Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing continue to spiral downward in performance. Bowyer’s Toyota team has gone from a runner-up points result in 2012, his peak, to a career-worst 19th-place finish last year.
In fact, Bowyer’s 2014 cumulative results — no wins, five top 5s and 15 top 10s — were the worst he’s recorded in Sprint Cup since 2009.
The warning signs were prevalent as early as last spring. After the ”SpinGate” incident in the fall of 2013 cost the organization millions in sponsorship support, MWR decided to drop from three full-time teams to two. The company line was that streamlining operations was a positive. Instead it just put MWR at a greater disadvantage against the field, competing against four-car teams with twice the money and resources. “You never want to create a storm in any sport or for anybody — any of your peers, your friends, your family, anybody,” Bowyer said during NASCAR’s return to Richmond on September.
But what’s done is done. NAPA, the biggest MWR sponsor lost through the whole ordeal, is now throwing big money at HMS and Chase Elliott. Former teammate Martin Truex Jr. is gone, driving for the No. 78 team at Furniture Row Racing. Left behind are Brian Vickers and Bowyer, whose PR image slowly recovered — but not his on-track results. He went winless for a second straight season, led just 109 laps and posted five DNFs, a shocking number for a driver who once went two-plus years without one.
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MWR remains a two-car team, staying the course with Bowyer and Vickers in the No. 55. They’ll start 2015 with a clean slate and decidedly less offseason strife to get in the way of research and development.
“We’ve got to figure out how to collectively get better with both cars,” Bowyer said in November. “We’ve got a lot of areas that we can improve on. It’s easy to point fingers on a lot of big areas, but in all honesty, in this sport and in this garage, it’s the little things that make up the difference.”
Those “little things” were what bit Bowyer at the worst possible moments. An ill-timed pit road mistake knocked him out of contention at Martinsville in the spring, costing him a win and an entry into the Chase. Then, a broken shifter ruined a strong run at Atlanta Motor Speedway, ending his hopes to make the postseason on points in early September.
Bowyer and MWR will welcome changes in the Sprint Cup rules packages that will level the playing field and give middle-tier programs a better opportunity to compete.
“The best thing that I can see is a completely different animal,” says Bowyer. “It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, starting from scratch again (this) year with a new car and new rules and everything else.”
What Bowyer needs now is a win — something positive that will finally make him forget his recent struggles.
A viable threat at Talladega Bowyer can weave through restrictor plate traffic with the best of them, evident from his two top-five finishes, after spot gains of 24.4 and 23.0 over his average running position in the two 2014 races.
Richmond favorite A two-time winner at Richmond, Bowyer scored one of his best finishes of the 2014 season there, a third-place result, after averaging a season-best 3.6-place average running position. He finished third or better in three of the last five races at RIR. As long as he can avoid mechanical failure or scandalous team orders, he’s a threat for the win.
Bad luck or just plain bad All of Bowyer’s awful luck or poor outings last season seemed to take place at the quad-oval tracks — Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta — where he averaged a 26.2-place finish.
No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Primary Sponsors: 5-Hour Energy, Peak, AAA
Owner: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman
Crew Chief: Brian Pattie
Year With Current Team: 4th
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 2nd (2012)
Hometown: Emporia, Kan.
Born: May 30, 1979
Car photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Bowyer photo courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing