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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: Clint Bowyer’s parties are legendary

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Clint Bowyer parties are not only legendary, they have the same effect as a black hole on unsuspecting passersby, as Steve Letarte found out in Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

“The cab driver comes up, goes inside, decides he is going to clock out – stays at the party,” Bowyer explained. “(The fare) is in the car waiting on him. He’s still inside partying. So somebody (else) got in the cab and made several laps on the go-kart track that night.”

It was eventually returned – muddied and with ungrateful patrons.

The cab driver is not the only person to get sucked into the vortex of a Bowyer party. Pizza delivery men, famous singers, and countless others have made this mistake of wandering too close.

“I’ve known Clint a long time, so none of this is shocking to me,” Letarte said as he correctly answered every bizarre question aimed at him.

For more of what has happened at one of Bowyer’s parties, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5:30 p.m. ET: Clint Bowyer joins Dale Jr. at the Big Oak Table

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5:30-6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is joined at the Big Oak table by Clint Bowyer and Steve Letarte. Krista Voda hosts.

On today’s edition of Wednesdays with Dale Jr.

• Clint Bowyer, a few weeks removed from his victory at Martinsville, joins Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte at the Big Oak Table to discuss the season, short track racing, the move to Stewart-Haas Racing last year and snapping his 190-race winless streak.
• Have a question for Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Clint Bowyer? Hit us up on Twitter using #WednesDale to get your question answered on air.
• Bowyer’s Martinsville victory celebration included some Moonshine & Fire. We’ll put his personal party knowledge to the test with this week’s game “Did This Really Happen at a Clint Bowyer Party?”

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5:30 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bump & Run: Who will be next to challenge Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick?

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Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have combined to win five of the first eight races of the season. Who is most likely to break up their dominance?

Nate Ryan: Any of the Penske drivers. That team seems to be next in class behind Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney. Has shown a good bit of speed lately and seems to be close to scoring a win or two in the near future.

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson is poised to wreak havoc on the field if he can put together complete races without any miscues, like his spin in Bristol. He’s the defending Richmond winner, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can carry his momentum there.

Dan Beaver: If it’s possible to overlook the defending champion, that is what seems to be happening with Martin Truex Jr. With five wins and 14 top fives in his last 18 races, he needs to forget about his bad luck in the last two races and concentrate on all the things the team has been doing right.

Parker KligermanWhen I look at the current landscape, I feel the drivers that can break their stranglehold will either be driving a JGR Toyota or Team Penske Ford. 

Ryan Blaney (30-race winless drought), Jimmie Johnson (31), Joey Logano (35), Ryan Newman (40 races) and Kurt Busch (43) are in droughts. Who is the first among this group to return to Victory Lane?

Nate Ryan: Logano, possibly as early as Saturday. Blaney would be 1A as it’s only a matter of time for Team Penske.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney. He’s been strong lately, finishing eighth at Auto Club, third at Martinsville and fifth at Texas before crashing out of the Bristol race while in the lead. His time is coming. 

Daniel McFadin: I think it comes down to either Logano or Blaney with Logano likely to win at Richmond or Talladega. He’s finished in the top two in the last two Richmond races and he’s one of the best plate racers of this generation

Dan Beaver: As consistently strong as he has run, it is difficult to believe Logano has not already won. Along with Kyle Busch, he is the only driver with seven top-10s in the first eight races. Five of these were sixth-place finishes or better. Returning to the site of his last win, Logano could break through this week – and this time it will not be encumbered.

Parker Kligerman: I believe Ryan Blaney will win first. He is showing some serious speed and seems to be in great form. I feel that crew chief Jeremy Bullins and Ryan will want to start to assert themselves inside Team Penske as the title contender I feel they will be this year. 

After the perceived success of PJ1 before the resumption of Monday’s race, should NASCAR consider doing mid-race treatments with a traction compound to tracks?

Nate Ryan: Yes. While it’s worth pondering whether it might be unfairly tampering with the competition to reapply traction compound during a race, the circumstances of a postponement should allow it, and the ends certainly justified the means in Bristol’s case.

Dustin Long: NASCAR should do what is necessary to provide the best type of racing for the fans. 

Daniel McFadin: It’s a toss-up for me, but I think I’d rather they didn’t. It’s more interesting to have teams have to account for the loss of a racing element over time, just like they do with tires. That happened in Bristol and the race was great from beginning to end. Also, applying it mid-race just makes for longer races.

Dan Beaver: If NASCAR can find a way to substantially improve the action, they should do whatever is necessary. Many dirt tracks around the country take time to water the surface before the A-Mains to develop a second groove. NASCAR still has some lessons that can be learned from the grass roots.

Parker Kligerman: Why not? I feel until we find a way to stop hearing the words “loss of downforce” from following other cars, NASCAR should continue to look at all available tools to add in variables that can cause uncertainty for the teams and drivers and create changes in track state like we saw at Bristol to cause the most dynamic races possible. 

Kyle Busch aims for three straight wins this weekend at Richmond

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Kyle Busch seeks to match a mark set by Kevin Harvick earlier this season. If Busch can win the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway, it will be his third consecutive Cup victory.

Harvick dominated the field earlier this year with his three-race winning streak at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway. Kyle Busch finished runner-up to Harvick twice in that stretch. That kicked off a six-race streak of top-three finishes, including wins at Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway.

MORE: Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. discuss fallout from 2008 Richmond race

Busch’s recent stats at Richmond would not necessarily put him at the top of the list of drivers mostly likely to win this week. He has not finished in the top five there in his last three attempts and hasn’t won since 2012, which was his fourth consecutive victory in the spring event. Busch has not yet won a fall Richmond race.

Included in his more recent Richmond results is a pair of back-to-back runner-up finishes in fall 2015 and spring 2016. More importantly, he is bolstered by his current winning streak as well as his feeling about the track.

“I love Richmond,” Busch said in a press release. “It’s one of my favorite race tracks and one of my best race tracks. I love being able to go there and, of course, we put on some pretty good races there. We won four spring races in a row and I would have loved to have made it five or more. It’s a neat race track and it’s certainly an excitement track and there is a lot of action that happens there.”

Last week, Busch won for the seventh time at Bristol – adding to his record as the winningest active driver there. The skill needed there will not translate to Richmond, however.

“Richmond and Bristol are more than oil and water, more than day and night,” Busch said. “Bristol is an attack-type race track yet, when you attack, you can get yourself in trouble. Richmond is a very methodical race track and you have to be very – you’re very on edge there all the time, especially corner entry, getting into the corners. You’re always loose there and you have to be able to be loose there in order to carry the speed through the middle and have good drive off.

“We’re back to two night races at Richmond again and sometimes nighttime just feeds itself with not as much grip and makes it to where the bottom is the preferred lane. Daytime allows the race track to widen out and be hotter where, on a cooler racetrack, you’re looking for where the rubber is for at least a little while until the whole track rubbers in, and then you have to go back to the bottom, anyway.”

While Busch has slipped outside the top five in his last three Richmond starts, his career average there is the best among active drivers. With a 7.4 career average at Richmond, he tops second-place Harvick’s 8.5. The most impressive statistic about Busch this week is that he has finished all but one of 10,026 laps of competition in 25 starts.

Busch has won three consecutive races once before in his career – at Kentucky Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July 2015.

The last two times he has had back-to-back Cup wins, however, Busch finished outside the top 25 in his next attempt – most recently following wins at New Hampshire and Dover International Speedway with a 29th at Charlotte Motor Speedway last October.