If frustration breeds hunger, then the field had better watch out for Clint Bowyer this year.
That’s because 2016 was an exercise in frustration for Bowyer, who was racing for underfunded HScott Motorsports while he waited for his seat at Stewart-Haas Racing to open after Tony Stewart’s retirement. After his Michael Waltrip Racing team closed its doors, that meant a year with HScott in the interim.
While running in the 20s every week for a 27th-place points finish isn’t an easy pill for an elite driver to swallow, Bowyer has a lot to be proud of: He owns three quarters of the team’s top-10 finishes in its three-plus-year existence, its best-ever points finish and average finish, and best-ever number of lead-lap finishes — all with the fewest DNFs in the team’s brief history. Bowyer answered the question of how an elite driver would perform in sub-par equipment — the numbers weren’t very pretty by his standards, but he elevated the team a notch.
Moving into the No. 14 at SHR won’t be a seamless transition either. Bowyer is replacing Stewart, a three-time champion, in the seat, but the team has struggled over the last couple of years to find the consistency that teammates Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick experienced.
Waltrip’s team struggled in its last seasons to recover from a 2013 cheating scandal in which Bowyer was implicated, and that leaves Bowyer labeled to an extent as damaged goods. He’ll need to call on the qualities that have brought him five top-10 points finishes in 11 full seasons in NASCAR’s Premier Series, including a runner-up finish in 2012.
Another obstacle: The team’s switch to Ford for 2017. While the manufacturer’s top-notch support and the elite power from Roush Yates engines are as good as anyone else in the business, there will be growing pains — time spent on preparing cars in the offseason in years past will be time spent building them this year. There will be new engineers and engine tuners in the mix, as well. Ford brings a lot to the team in terms of support, especially with a state-of-the-art research and development facility not far from SHR headquarters.
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Bowyer has been teammates with Kevin Harvick in the past during his stint with Richard Childress Racing, but he’ll have two new — and volatile — teammates as well in 2017 in Busch and Danica Patrick. He’ll also have a new crew chief to work with in Mike Bugarewicz, who’s still relatively inexperienced. Even the best teams need time to develop chemistry.
Bowyer also lost longtime sponsor 5-hour Energy to youngster Erik Jones, and backing is a bit of a question mark. Mobil 1 will sponsor a few races, and Haas Automation will undoubtedly pick some up, but other sponsorship was an unknown as the new year approached. Backing is a major key to a four-car organization’s overall success.
Despite all the challenges, though, Bowyer should be a good fit with SHR. He’s got an outgoing personality, and he can wheel a car. In 2016, he was an elite driver in an underfunded car who in the end wasn’t able to overcome his equipment. There will be no such worries this year. It may take a year for him to settle in and make the Chase — don’t be surprised if he misses this year — but this time it’s more a question of how long it will take to get back in top form and not whether he has what it takes.