HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 19:  Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour Energy Chevrolet, sits in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 19, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images

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: Recapping Kurt Busch’s ‘patient’ Daytona 500 win

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A day after his Daytona 500 win, the NASCAR America crew breaks down everything Busch had to do to win. Busch drove the final 30 laps without a rear-view mirror while worrying about how much gas he had left.

Tony Stewart, who owns the No. 41, called the win the most “patient” race of Busch’s career.

Check out the logo for the 60th Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 22:  Fans crowd the infield prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 57th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 22, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
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Sure, it’s been roughly 24 hours since Kurt Busch won the 59th Daytona 500.

But it’s not too early to start ramping up to the next entry of the “Great American Race.”

Daytona International Speedway has already unveiled the logo for the 60th Daytona 500, which is scheduled to be run on Feb. 18, 2018.

Check out it out below.

Denny Hamlin, girlfriend Jordan Fish expecting second child

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am Duel 2
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Denny Hamlin didn’t make it back-to-back wins in the Daytona 500 on Sunday, but he still had a good day.

Hamlin’s longtime girlfriend, Jordan Fish, tweeted just before the “Great American Race” that their first child, 4-year-old daughter Taylor, will soon have a brother or sister.

Fish tweeted a photo of Taylor wearing a “Big Sister In Training” shirt that told the whole story.

Congratulations to the couple and the soon-t0-be addition to their family.

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Matt DiBenedetto delivers Go Fas Racing best Cup Series result in team history

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 24:  Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the #32 EJ Wade Construction Ford, practices for the 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 24, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
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It took 99 starts, a revolving door of drivers and the crash fest that was the 59th Daytona 500.

That’s all it took before Matt DiBenedetto was able to give his new NASCAR Cup Series team, Go Fas Racing, its best result in team history, finishing ninth in Sunday’s “Great American Race.”

DiBenedetto, driving the No. 32 Ford owned by Archie St. Hilaire, simply survived.

Despite being in the 17-car wreck on Lap 128, DiBenedetto’s car stayed in one piece and, after a last pit stop, had enough gas to take advantage of the misfortune of others. The result is his second top 10 in two seasons.

“That’s a heck of a way to start the year,” DiBenedetto said after the race. “Holy cow. We survived. We got in that one crash and we hit pretty hard. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s gonna be a long day,’ but the guys did a great job patching it up. It still ran fine. I had good speed. The motor ran great all day, so it was cool.”

Starting his third full-time season in the NASCAR Cup Series, DiBenedetto rolled off 25th in his second Daytona 500 start. The native of Grass Valley, California, had an average running spot of 21.35.

As the laps wound down, teams ahead of DiBenedetto began dropping off as their fuel tanks dried up. The 25-year-old driver had no idea what position he was in as he took the checkered flag.

“No, I didn’t honestly,” DiBenedetto said. “The whole race we were pitting multiple times just trying to make sure it was fixed properly and taking our time and we just kept picking them off one at a time and it turned out to be a great day.”

It was DiBenedetto’s best day since he earned an emotional sixth-place finish in last year’s spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Then, DiBenedetto was with BK Racing, which he decided to leave following the season.

“It was definitely different,” DiBenedetto said. “This one was a little bit more survival. … I would say they’re different feelings, but being in the Daytona 500 in the first place is unbelievable. So I’m gonna say this one does feel really good just because it’s the Daytona 500 and it’s been my dream since I was five to even be in it. So to get a top 10 in it, I’m just checking off all these dreams come true.”

Go Fas Racing made its Cup Series debut in 2012 at Texas Motor Speedway with Scott Speed driving its No. 95 Ford.

DiBenedetto is the 23rd driver to take the reigns of a Go Fas Racing car, but the first to drive full-time.

“We’ve taken the team and brought in some really good people,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m so lucky to have my crew chief, Gene Nead, who came in and assembled some of the best guys we could possibly get, so we have some real quality people, some of the folks that were at BK with me. It’s amazing to have that tight of a group, where they are so dedicated to follow me and Gene wherever we go.

“That’s special. You don’t find that often, so we have such a great relationship and I think that’s where we’re gonna turn a lot of heads this year and surprise everybody. You’re only as good as the people around you and we have really good people. I’m fortunate to have them. We’re gonna turn some heads. We have 15 employees total versus some people who have 400-500, but we have 15 good, quality people and our goal is to over-achieve all year.”

It’s doesn’t hurt to start in the Daytona 500.

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