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Everything is new again for Clint Bowyer in first season with Stewart-Haas Racing

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – This season will be the second reboot for Clint Bowyer in as many years and his enthusiasm for it shined through Tuesday at the NASCAR Media Tour.

Bowyer bounded onto the stage with a wave.

“Hi everyone, remember me?” Bower asked. “It’s nice to be happy. It’s fun to be happy, believe it or not.”

After a very long season with now-defunct HScott Motorsports, Bowyer will take to the track in the No. 14, driven for the last eight seasons by Tony Stewart.

“A lot of thought really goes into the new season, with a new life, and a new chance, new crack at bat, manufacturer, sponsors, teammates and a new organization,” said Bowyer, who will drive a Ford for the first time in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. “What an unbelievable opportunity it is to go out, do what you do, and do it in first-class equipment. That’s all they do, and that’s all they talk about, and that’s all they care about. It’s guys with their heads down working to build cars that win races.”

Four years ago, Bowyer and his team at the time, Michael Waltrip Racing, were caught up in a race manipulation scandal at Richmond International Raceway. Two seasons later, MWR announced it was closing its doors and Bowyer would be without a ride.

Then Bowyer was thrown a really big life-preserver. The native of Emporia, Kansas, was announced as the eventual successor to Stewart, who retired from NASCAR competition after last season.

But before the keys were handed to Bowyer, he had to endure a season with HScott Motorsports. An eight-time winner in the Cup Series, Bowyer went from Daytona to Homestead without a win for the fourth straight season. He drove the No. 15 car to one top five (Bristol I) and three tops 10s. He finished a career-worst 27th in the points.

“At the end of the day, relevancy in this sport is everything, and I’ve lost that a little bit,” Bowyer said last week. “Not a little bit. A lot.’’

Now part of a top-tier team for the first time since his six Cup seasons (2006-11) at Richard Childress Racing, Bowyer is not taking the opportunity for granted 33 days before the Daytona 500.

“Hey, let’s face it, you’re not given anything in this series,” Bowyer said. “It’s very challenging and difficult to win races. You’re only as good as the people around you. From (Mike Bugarewicz) my crew chief to my teammates, the sponsors … everything at Stewart-Haas is all-in to win races.”

And if he wins a race, what will it mean to the driver who hasn’t visited a NASCAR victory lane since 2012?

“Will it be special? You’re damn right it will,” Bowyer said. “The last time I won a race … you headed to the next one wanting to win it. Success makes you hungry for more success. It’s been a while. But I need to re-establish myself as a consistent frontrunner. We need to perfect that … and then win races.”

And the races will look different this year after NACAR on Monday announced new race and points formats for all three national series. All races will be broken into three segments, with points awarded to the top 10 drivers in the first two segments before points are awarded to all drivers at the end of the race.

Bowyer said it wasn’t a “sales pitch” before launching into why he’s satisfied with the new layout of the sport.

“I’ve said for years I believe it’s time to look for some sort of opportunity to break these races up,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of long runs, and I know fans aren’t either. I’m really happy that NASCAR looked at that and decided to make a move, a very bold move … I like protecting the team or teams that dominated the season and even dominated the Chase in years past that didn’t come out victorious in the championship because of a blown tire or something out of their control.”

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Matt Kenseth wrecks out of Auto Club 400 on late restart

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Matt Kenseth crashed out of the Auto Club 400 on a restart with 16 laps remaining in the race at Auto Club Speedway.

Kenseth had restarted fourth following a caution for an incident involving Gray Gaulding.

Kenseth was in the middle groove exiting Turn 2 when he was tapped from behind by Martin Truex Jr. and slid toward the inside wall, which his No. 20 Toyota hit hard. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was cleared and released from the infield care center.

It is Kenseth’s third DNF in the first five races of the season and his second in as many races. He had four in all of 2016.

Kenseth entered the race 20th in the point standings.

Martin Truex Jr. has commanding performance in Stage 2 win at Fontana

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Martin Truex Jr. has taken over as the most dominating driver in today’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

After pole-sitter Kyle Larson won the first 60-lap stage, Truex won Stage 2. During the session, Truex’s car showed supremacy with nearly a seven-second lead in the closing laps of the stage.

Truex has now won three of the last six stages, having captured both stages two weeks ago en route to his overall race win at Las Vegas.

Larson is in second place, followed by Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

There has been just two cautions in the race – both coming in Stage 1.

We now move to the final stage, an 80-lap shootout to determine the race winner.

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Kyle Larson wins Stage 1 of Auto Club 400 at Fontana

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Pole-sitter Kyle Larson is almost one-third of the way to winning Sunday’s Auto Club 400. The California native won Stage 1 of the race at his home-state Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

Larson (43 laps) and Martin Truex Jr. (12 laps) have led the majority of the laps during the opening 60-lap segment. That segment will be followed by another 60-lap segment, and then an 80-lap final section for 200 laps (400 miles) around the 2-mile low-banked track.

It was Larson’s first stage win of the 2017 season under the new enhanced scoring format in the NASCAR Cup Series. Larson has finished runner-up in each of the last three races and four of the last five (dating back to the 2016 season finale). He has just one career Cup win, last year at Michigan.

Truex is running second, followed by Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch.

Sixth through 10th are Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin.

Each of the top 10 finishers in Stage 1 will earn stage points in the NASCAR Cup standings.

Two incidents of note occurred early in the race, both involving Brad Keselowski:

* On the first lap, Keselowski’s car suffered left rear damage when several cars were involved in an accordion-like wreck. Others involved included Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, but there was no caution called.

* Keselowski continued on without repairing the damage and was spun out on Lap 3 when he was hit from behind by Jimmie Johnson, causing further damage to Keselowski’s Ford Fusion. The caution came out for Laps 5 through 7. Johnson claimed there was little or no damage over his team radio, but Johnson has continued to have struggles this weekend. He’s running 32nd, one lap down.

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Bad race start results in damaged cars for Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick

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A bad start by the inside lane at the beginning of the Auto Club 400 resulted in damage to the cars of Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman.

Denny Hamlin struggled to get to speed at the drop of the green flag, causing the first few rows of cars to bunch up. It resulted in Newman making contact with Keselowski’s left rear and causing damage. Harvick then ran into Newman as the inside bottlenecked.

On Lap 4, after falling back to 17th, Keselowski was hit from behind by Jimmie Johnson on the front stretch, which sent the No. 2 car spinning through the infield grass. Keselowski, the Atlanta winner, was 19th and the first car a lap down when the first stage ended.

During pit stops in the resulting caution, large amounts of tape were put on the front bumper and grille of Harvick’s car and the right-front fender of Newman’s.

With 35 laps left in the first 60-lap stage, Harvick was forced to pit for a flat right-rear tire. He now runs in 28th, a lap down. Newman, who won last week at Phoenix, a lap down in 22nd.

Johnson, a six-time Auto Club winner and the defending winner, was told his No. 48 had damage that could easily be fixed in the pits.  He runs in 20th a lap down. Johnson is winless this season.