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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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NASCAR America: Dale Jr.’s aggressiveness at Sonoma pays off, will need it at Daytona

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Dale Earnhardt was very aggressive in his final Cup start at Sonoma Raceway, and while it may have resulted in his Lap 14 accident in Turn 11, it also helped produce his third top 10 of the year and his second in a row.

“I think being offensive is better than being passive on a road course, nothing wrong with that,” said NASCAR America analyst Max Papis, who also broke down what caused Earnhardt’s bizarre spin early in Sunday’s race that also involved Danica Patrick and Kyle Larson.

“You’ve got to commit, usually the pass has happened before you actually arrive at the corner,” Papis said. “He thought that was a good opportunity, (then) committed. ”

NASCAR America’s analysts also discussed Earnhardt’s upcoming start at Daytona, which likely will be his final Cup start there. The track may be his best shot to earn a win and a spot in the playoffs.

The analysts believe the aggressiveness that was on display at Sonoma will be necessary for Earnhardt to pull a win out at Daytona.

Earnhardt’s year got off to a rough start in the Daytona 500. He was leading the race when Kyle Busch lost a tire in Turn 3 on Lap 105, spun and collected Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones.

Earnhardt was near the front at Talladega in May late in the race when he was forced to pit for a loose tire with less than 15 laps to go.

That leaves the 14-time most popular driver with just two more chances to win a restrictor-plate race, the format he’s earned 10 of his 26 Cup Series wins.

“They’ve got to find a way to give him a car where he can be aggressive Dale Jr.,” Jeff Burton said. “What makes him so good at Daytona and Talladega is that he doesn’t hesitate. He’s the guy setting the tempo, he’s the guy forcing the issue. … He can’t drive with caution, he can’t drive worried about if ‘is my car going to stick?’ He’s got to stick it in there and know it’s going to stick. He hasn’t had that the last several plate races.”

Watch the above video for the full discussion.

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Daytona

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NASCAR returns to Daytona International Speedway this weekend with the Cup and Xfinity Series.

Cup teams will compete in the Coke Zero 400, which will air at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday on NBC and the Xfinity Series holds the Coca-Colca Firecracker 250, which will air at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday on NBCSN.

Here are the entry lists for both races.

Cup – Coke Zero 400

Forty cars are entered into the 17th race of the Cup season. That would make it the sixth race this year to have the most possible cars in the field.

Darrell Wallace Jr. will be back in the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. Brendan Gaughan will drive the No. 75 Chevrolet for Beard Motorsports.

Ryan Sieg will drive the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing in his third start for the team.

Kurt Busch won the last trip to Daytona, leading only the last lap of the Daytona 500 after multiple leaders ran out of gas in the closing laps. Brad Keselowski won last year’s Coke Zero 400.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Coca-Cola Firecracker 250

There are 43 cars on the preliminary entry list for this race, including four full-time Cup drivers. They are Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Joey Logano.

There is no driver announced for the No. 93 Chevrolet owned by RSS racing.

Ryan Reed won the February Xfinity race at Daytona after being involved in two crashes and leading nine laps. Aric Almirola won last year’s July race after a caution on the last lap forced NASCAR to review video and loop data and determined him the winner over Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the entry list.

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch can afford to lose interim crew chief for Daytona

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Kyle Busch may have yet another view in his ear this weekend when he races in the Coke Zero 400.

Interim crew chief Ben Beshore may be suspended for the race after two unsecured lug nuts were found on the No. 18 Toyota after the Sonoma race.

The possible loss of Beshore comes after Busch’s usual crew chief, Adam Stevens, was suspended four races for a wheel falling off Busch’s car following a pit stop at Dover.

Daytona will be the fourth race of that suspension. NASCAR America’s analysts discussed the impact of the possible suspension for Busch, who is still looking for his first win since July of last year.

“They’re not making mistakes, they’re just finding themselves in difficult positions,” Dale Jarrett said. “This is certainly another one of those, going to a race track Kyle Busch can win at. But who you have on that pit box means a lot as for performing all through a race.”

Said Jeff Burton, “The frustration level is mounting, obviously. Kyle Busch is expecting to win races. … I think if you’re going to lose your crew chief, this is probably the race you want to lose it for. Going to Daytona, you pretty much have a plan going there. The pit strategy will be interesting with the stages, but if I was going to a race track, this would be the race I’d feel most comfortable without my crew chief.”

Watch the above video for the full segment.

Eddie Pardue named crew chief for Jeffrey Earnhardt’s No. 33 car

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The Circle Sport/The Motorsports Group announced that Eddie Pardue is the new crew chief on its No. 33 Chevrolet effective immediately.

Pardue, who was the team’s head of engineering, will lead the effort on Jeffrey Earnhardt‘s car this weekend in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. This will be his first Cup race as a crew chief since 2008, when he led Greg Biffle in one race at Auto Club Speedway. He has three wins in 338 races as crew chief in the Xfinity Series dating back to 1998.

The former competition director for Red Horse Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, Pardue replaces Pay Tryson, who has been released from the team.

Tryson directed Boris Said at Sonoma Raceway, where he finished 29th. Earnhardt has been in the No. 33 in every other race. His best result in his first 15 starts was 26th in the Daytona 500.

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