Winless since 2012, Bowyer is now ninth the Cup Series point standings, his highest position since the 2015 Daytona 500.
After seven races with Stewart-Haas Racing following his move from defunct HScott Motorsports, Bowyer has three top 10s and one top five. He’s also the top-ranked driver among all four Stewart-Haas Racing entries.
Watch the video to hear Bowyer’s thoughts on the season so far and their relationships with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, who is in his second year on the job with the No. 14 team.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve been with someone as dedicated as Mike,” Bowyer said. “He’s the guy you literally have to say, ‘Mike, go home. Go eat a dinner with your family. Take your family out to dinner. Do something, get your mind off this.’ He’ll call you at 9, 10 o’clock at night and he’s still at the shop with his head in the computer.”
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.
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.’’
Tony Stewart and his rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz have three top-five finishes in the last four races and are enjoying their team’s success in Stewart’s final season before retiring from Sprint Cup racing.
‘Savvy’ rookie crew chief leads Tony Stewart to consecutive top fives for first time since 2014
With three laps left in the New Hampshire 301, Tony Stewart put the nose of his No. 14 Chevrolet beneath Joey Logano‘s car and took second place away from the Team Penske driver.
Three laps later, Stewart claimed his second top-five finish in as many weeks and his third in four races. It was the first time Stewart has had consecutive top fives since March 2014 when he did so at Bristol Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway.
“I’m happy, I mean this is the kind of day we wanted here, and we are getting close,” Stewart told NBCSN.
He is 28th in the points standings three races after winning at Sonoma Raceway and is eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup after missing the first eight races due to a back injury.
Though Stewart’s average running spot during the 301-lap race was 12.9, four cautions in the final 36 laps allowed the Stewart-Haas Racing team to move into the top five during restarts.
“I’d say the last three restarts were pretty intense,” Stewart said. “This track has always kind of had a history of one lane prevailing over the others … you’ve got two lanes wide of cars that are trying to get to one lane every restart.
“It seemed like it took a couple laps after the restarts for the track to rubber back in, and I think it was the best tire that Goodyear has brought here that I can remember in the 18 years I’ve been here. You could race all over the racetrack today, and it didn’t seem like the aero situation was near as bad as what it has been in the past, so I was really happy with Goodyear brought.”
Stewart was also happy with how rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz handled the weekend and improved his car’s performance from Saturday when Stewart was 16th fastest in final practice. The three-time champion didn’t stick around Loudon following practice, instead, he flew to Eldora Speedway, the dirt track he owns in Rossburg, Ohio, to attend the World of Outlaws King’s Royal event.
“Mike was working all night, so my phone would vibrate in my pocket, and it’s 11 at night and he’s got a question still that he wants feedback on, and that’s the stuff I like about him,” Stewart said. “I mean, he’s a workaholic, and I guarantee you he watched the entire race last night. The night before the race he watches every previous race there and just kind of watches what happens.
“For a guy that’s not been the head guy on the pit box for very long, he’s got a lot of savvy about what’s going on there.
The calls and moves made by Bugarewicz, which included taking four tires on the team’s last pit stop, had Stewart sixth and on the outside on the final restart with 11 laps to go.
“We were able to start picking our way through there, and that was really good,” Stewart said.
It led to Stewart’s best finish at the “Magic Mile” since he won there in 2011, a year that he finished in the top two of both New Hampshire races. Stewart believes the team is more relaxed as a result of his win at Sonoma, the first in his final Sprint Cup season.
“Everybody was kind of on edge because everybody wants this last year to be good and we want to run good in this last year,” Stewart said. “So for Mike and I to get caught up with each other, we’ve really had to work hard at it, and I think he’s done a great job, but I think Sonoma really helped kind of relax everybody and gets us in the mode of racing again and not really worrying about what we were looking like out there.”
Stewart is well aware that the Cup series will return to NHMS for the Chase for the Sprint Cup when the “atmosphere is different” at the 1-mile track in September.
“Both Mike and I feel like we’ve got some things to gain on,” Stewart said. “I hope everybody feels like what they’ve got is good enough, but I feel like we have room to gain from it, and he’s the kind of guy that won’t stop until he figures it out.”
Mike Bugarewicz has a hard enough job as a NASCAR Sprint Cup crew chief.
But that job just got a little easier – at least for one race – after his driver, Tony Stewart, won Sunday at Sonoma.
Not only was it Stewart’s first win since 2013 – and the 49th of his Sprint Cup career – it was also Bugarewicz’s first win atop a Cup pit box.
“I’ve only worked at Stewart-Haas (Racing), this is my third year, (the first) two years with Kevin (Harvick) as his engineer,” Bugarewicz said. “Every win is sweet whether I’m a race engineer or crew chief or whatever, it’s all great.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet that it was my first, but our goal from the beginning of the year was to get Tony back in victory lane, and I’m just so glad that we could get him there.”
But after Sunday’s win, Bugarewicz said his driver’s mindset might have changed a bit more to the positive side of things – and that he certainly had some fun in Sunday’s win.
“I did not remember to ask him that,” Bugarewicz said about failing to ask Stewart if he was having fun before Sunday’s race. “I just assumed by the look of his face that he was enjoying it.
“One thing I will say, no matter what, every week it’s the last thing I say to him before I leave the car and he actually reminded me of that today.
“He said, ‘If I get angry and start yelling at you today, just remind me to have fun.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know how that’ll work out for me.’ But no, we always talk about that. What’s most important for all of us is just enjoy it, take it in. You have to do that.”
While Bugarewicz and his team did everything they could to help Stewart to victory lane, in the end it was Stewart who did what he needed to do.
That included being mum on the team radio on the final lap.
“I stayed pretty quiet,” Bugarewicz said. “The spotter was keeping in touch with him. He didn’t say much, either.
“In those situations I just like to let (Stewart) concentrate and let him do his thing. He’s got a lot going on, especially at a place like this, so we just let him focus.”
But Bugarewicz also had something that only one other Sprint Cup team (six-time champ Jimmie Johnson) has — a driver with multiple Cup titles.
“Having a three-time champion who knew he had an opportunity today is a big thing,” Bugarewicz said. “At the end of the day, we only won because of his desire and his drive and his want.
“I truly believe that with these competitors and how good all the cars are and these top-tier drivers, that’s all it is. It’s a matter of who wants it more at the end of the day in most cases. Today, Tony wanted it more.”