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Clint Bowyer looks to be relevant again

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CONCORD, N.C. — Clint Bowyer can be loud, wild and ready for the next good time, but after a season that felt as arduous as Odysseus’ journey, Bowyer’s voice softens when he states a goal for this season.

“I sure hope you are watching me,’’ Bowyer said as he stood next to his No. 14 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. “At the end of the day, relevancy in this sport is everything, and I’ve lost that a little bit. Not a little bit. A lot.’’

Four years after finishing runner-up in the championship, Bowyer could barely finish in the top 20 in races last year for HScott Motorsports, a team no longer competing in NASCAR.

It was a stunning fall for driver who seemed on solid ground after he signed a three-year contract extension with Michael Waltrip Racing in May 2014, following back-to-back finishes in the top 10 in points.

Fourteen months later, though, Michael Waltrip Racing announced it would cease operations after the season.

Clint Bowyer will drive the No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing this season. (Stewart-Haas Racing)
Clint Bowyer will drive the No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing this season. (Stewart-Haas Racing)

A month after that, Bowyer signed to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing, replacing Tony Stewart in 2017. That left Bowyer without a ride for 2016. With few options, Bowyer went to HScott Motorsports and suffered through a season that saw him record three top-20 finishes in the last 19 races.

“Was it the best thing in the world for me?’’ Bowyer said of last season. “Probably not. It probably wasn’t healthy as a matter of fact, but, nonetheless, this deal was worth it. This opportunity was worth whatever you had to go through, whether it was sitting at home or getting into something. It didn’t matter, I signed on for this thing. I want to be in this car because I knew it was my soonest opportunity to be in the best possible situation to win races.’’

But it has been four years since he last won, a span of 149 races.

He was asked Wednesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center if he is any good still.

“That’s a real legitimate question,’’ Bowyer said. “You just don’t know. I think the last time I was in a good car, I was good. I think that I’m a smarter driver than I was three years ago. I think I’m plenty capable of winning races. I love what I see at Stewart-Haas.’’

His team was set up for him. Mike Bugarewicz gained experience last year in his rookie season as a crew chief for Stewart. That should help Bugarewicz in the transition to his new driver. Bowyer and Bugarewicz started talking weekly in the second half of last season, discussing what setups Bowyer liked, track conditions, tires, etc. Anything to learn each other and help their communication this season.

“For me, that driver/crew chief relationship is everything and you’ve got to get that established,’’ Bowyer said.

Bowyer also can lean on some familiar faces at Stewart-Haas Racing. He was a teammate to Kevin Harvick at Richard Childress Racing. Bowyer was at Michael Waltrip Racing when Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers was there. Billy Scott, crew chief for Danica Patrick, was Bowyer’s crew chief, for part of the 2015 season.

About the only person he doesn’t know well at SHR is Kurt Busch.

“We just never really hung out,’’ Bowyer said of the 2004 champion. “He’s the one guy that I really think has more raw talent than about anybody out there. I want to go out and learn as much as I can. I know he can really diagnose what’s going on with the car. The depth he goes in with the debrief is probably a lot higher than I’ve had in the past.’’

That’s just part of the culture at Stewart-Haas Racing that has Bowyer excited.

“They don’t take second as an option,’’ Bowyer said. “They go and work hard and figure out how to go win these races.’’

No longer does he have to worry about finishing 25th (his average finish last year was 23.6).

“With equipment like this, if you’re 25th or something at the end of the day … there’s a reason for it,’’ Bowyer said. “That’s the breath of fresh air. It’s not expected. It’s not going to happen.’’

Told that Stewart sees Bowyer as calmer, the 37-year-old replies that he’s “confident again.

“When 2016 finally came to an end, I was looking at Dale (Earnhardt) Jr and Amy having a good time (at their New Year’s Eve wedding), and I’m like I can’t wait for tomorrow morning,’’ Bowyer said. “Just get all that brushed off, get it behind you and … focus on the task at the hand and using this wonderful opportunity to be good and great again.’’

And relevant.

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Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s to sponsor RCR in Cup, Xfinity in 2018

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Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s will sponsor Richard Childress Racing in multiple races in the Cup and Xfinity Series next year, the team announced Monday.

Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s merged in September 2017.

The outdoors brands will be on Ryan Newman‘s No. 31 Chevrolet during the 60th Daytona 500 on Feb. 18 and in several other races during the season.

Richard Childress Racing

They will also be a primary sponsor for Austin and Ty Dillon on the No. 3 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series for several races.

“Our relationship with Bass Pro Shops dates back to the mid-1990s and we’re thrilled to be able to continue it during the 2018 season,” team owner Richard Childress said in a press release. “Austin, Ty and Ryan are terrific ambassadors for the great outdoors. They are all passionate about our hunting, fishing and conservation heritage which has made this partnership thrive.

“Next season will be exciting as we welcome Cabela’s, the iconic outdoor brand acquired by Bass Pro Shops, to the RCR family.”

Bass Pro Shops, founded in 1972 by Johnny Morris, is also a primary sponsor of Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota owned by Furniture Row Racing.

The store chain will be on the hood of the No. 78 in 16 races and on the sides of it in 14 others.

Here’s the eligible drivers for the 2018 Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona

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NASCAR has officially announced the 20 drivers who are eligible to take part in the Cup Series’ season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway.

The 75-lap exhibition event is set for 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 11, the same day as qualifying for the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

The race will be divided into two segments. A competition caution on Lap 25 will divide them.

Drivers become eligible for the Clash by winning a pole the previous season, being a Daytona 500 pole-winner who competed full-time the previous season or being a playoff driver the previous season.

Here are the eligible drivers.

2017 Coors Light Pole Award Winners (14)

Former Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole Award Winners (3)

2017 Playoff Drivers (3)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are not expected to compete in the race. Earnhardt retired from Cup competition following the 2017 season and Kenseth doesn’t have a ride for the 2018 season.

Danica Patrick, the 2013 Daytona 500 pole-sitter, announced last month she was done as a full-time driver but that she planned to race in the Daytona 500. No definitive team plans have been announced for her.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram injury update: still in ICU, but continues to show progress

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram continues to show improvement from the serious injuries he suffered in a December 3 car crash in his native Asheville, North Carolina.

In an update Sunday written on CaringBridge.org, Ingram’s daughter, Ingrid Jones, said her father remains in the Intensive Care Unit at Asheville’s Mission Hospital.

According to Jones:

“Daddy continues to hold his own, making healing steps forward and then a step back, which we fully expected-but he’s surprising us each and every day with his strength and courage to overcome this. Overall, he’s doing amazingly well.”

Ingram’s family had hoped he could have moved out of ICU and into the Trauma Unit as the next phase of his recovery, but he remains in intensive care.

Said Jones:

“For now, he’ll remain in ICU until he can go a full 24 hours without ventilator assisted breathing. We’re almost there … but may still be a few days.”

Ingram, who turns 81 on Dec. 28, was able to sit in a chair and watched part of Sunday’s NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings with his family. Jones wrote that Ingram also was surprised to learn that the mountain near the family’s Asheville-area home received a total of 16 inches of snow Friday and Saturday.

Jones added, “We continue to be optimistic for his health, and we also continue to appreciate the prayers and encouraging thoughts.”

K&N Pro Series West 2018 schedule includes Las Vegas dirt race

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The 2018 K&N Pro Series West schedule includes the series’ first dirt race in 39 years.

NASCAR announced the 15-race schedule Monday, revealing the series will race on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track on Sept. 13.

The race will kick off NASCAR’s playoff-opening weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for all three of its national series.

It will be the series’ first dirt race since 1979 at Ascot Park in Gardena, California. The K&N West series joins the Camping World Truck Series in holding one dirt race a year. The Trucks race at Eldora Speedway in July.

The K&N West season will open March 15 at Kern County Raceway Park in Bakersfield, Calif.

The schedule includes two joint-races with the K&N Pro Series East series. They will be held on July 27 at Iowa Speedway and on Aug. 24 at Illinois’ Gateway Motorsports Park.

NBCSN’s broadcast schedule for the season will be announced at a later date.

Below is the full schedule.

Date Track Location
15-Mar Kern County Raceway Park Bakersfield, Calif.
5-May Tucson Speedway* Tucson, Ariz.
19-May Orange Show Speedway San Bernardino, Calif.
9-Jun Colorado National Speedway Dacona, Colo.
23-Jun Sonoma Raceway Sonoma, Calif.
30-Jun Douglas County Speedway Roseburg, Ore.
15-Jul Spokane County Raceway Airway Heights, Wash.
27-Jul Iowa Speedway** Newtown, Iowa
11-Aug Evergreen Speedway Monroe, Wash.
24-Aug Gateway Motorsports Park** Madison, Ill.
13-Sep Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track Las Vegas, Nev.
29-Sep Meridian Speedway Meridian, Idaho
13-Oct All American Speedway Roseville, Calif.
27-Oct Kern County Raceway Park Bakersfield, Calif.

*100-lap twin features
**Combination event with NASCAR K&N Pro Series East