There are questions swirling around Clint Bowyer heading into the 2018 season: Just how good is he, really? Is he a championship-caliber driver who’s been the victim of circumstance? Or is he merely a solid driver when he’s in good equipment, but not on a championship tier?
It could go either way. Bowyer has a handful of wins, including a three-win season in 2012 in which he finished runner-up in the championship battle and played a major role in the rise of Michael Waltrip Racing to a top-tier organization.
But NASCAR is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport, and lately — well, lately, Bowyer hasn’t done so much. He hasn’t won since 2012 and was embroiled in a 2013 cheating scandal at MWR, accused of spinning out on purpose to buy then-teammate Martin Truex Jr. a few points toward a playoff berth. The team never rebounded, folding after the 2015 season, and Bowyer hasn’t really bounced back either. The 2016 season was a wash as he competed for a backmarker team while waiting for his current seat at Stewart-Haas Racing to open up. And it’s possible to look at 2017 as a transition year for Bowyer at SHR, as he climbed into a No. 14 car that hadn’t been performing up to snuff.
So where does that leave Bowyer? His 2017 season wasn’t that bad. He had three second-place finishes, at Bristol, Sonoma and Daytona. His 13 top-10 runs were as many or more than five drivers who did make the playoffs. Overall, his season was what it needed to be: an improvement over Tony Stewart, with more top 5s and top 10s. The team as a whole is stronger than it was a year ago, and that bodes well for Bowyer’s prospects of making the playoffs.
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Not only did the team improve in 2017, but it did so following an offseason manufacturer change from Chevrolet to Ford. A big change like that could have hurt the organization, but SHR put two teams in the playoffs and one in the title hunt at Homestead. Ford has channeled a lot of effort into its NASCAR endeavors in recent years, and it’s paying off for SHR as an organization.
One reason for that is the Roush Yates power that the Ford teams have under the hood. They’re strong and durable and powered two of the series’ top four finishers last year, including Bowyer’s teammate Kevin Harvick. Bowyer has the equipment to contend.
He also has the people. Crew chief Mike Bugarewicz returns for his third season on top of the No. 14 pit box. Bugarewicz handles the excitable Bowyer well on track. Team owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas are committed to success for all four teams within the organization. Aric Almirola joins as a teammate to Bowyer, Harvick and Kurt Busch. He’s a veteran driver who won’t rock the boat and who represents a step up in the feedback he’ll provide.
So what’s the bump in the road? Sponsorship. The No. 14 had backing from Mobil 1, Rush Truck Centers and Five Star Urgent Care in select races last year, but those don’t appear carved in stone this year. Haas Automation, Gene Haas’ company, backed him for a number of races and likely will again, but that’s not exactly the long-term solution the team wants to see. The best thing Bowyer can do to help the situation is to perform; he’s personable and popular, and if he runs well, backers should come calling.
This is a year in which Bowyer could make or break the rest of his career. He can absolutely make the playoffs — and he may need to. It’s a contract year for him, and with the son of team minority owner Joe Custer waiting in the wings in the XFINITY Series, Bowyer may be racing for his future.