DALLAS – As he traveled home Sunday, Clint Bowyer had a realization.
Behind him was Richmond International Raceway, where he finished 10th to clinch a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and celebrated on a fan-swarmed stage with red solo cup.
But that wasn’t all that was behind him.
“Literally, (I) had the worst year ever in my whole career and I’m how many points out of the lead?” Bowyer asked Tuesday at a Chase media event in downtown Dallas.
The answer is 12 points.
Bowyer is the last entry on 16-driver Chase grid after finishing the regular season with two top-five and 11 top-10 finishes. Both are his lowest totals since he began racing full time in Sprint Cup in 2006 and are worse than his results in 2014 – when he missed the Chase.
The Emporia, Kans., native hasn’t won a Cup race since 2012, his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing, a team that will cease full-time operations in 2016 after co-owner Rob Kauffman announced he would be purchasing a stake in Chip Ganasi Racing.
“This is a whole new reset, a whole new opportunity, crack at the bat,” Bowyer said. “That brings so much enthusiasm and excitement to my attitude and everybody else’s at MWR. That’s huge thing.”
The new opportunity begins with the three-race Challenger Round, which visits Chicagoland, Dover and New Hampshire, with the last two seeming to appease Bowyer’s sensibilities.
“That’s the other thing about the Chase, these are pretty good race tracks for me,” he said. “You got some short tracks in there right off the bat to kind of get your base established.”
Bowyer has an average finish of 11.7 at Dover and two top-five finishes. Two of Bowyer’s eight career wins have come in Loudon. But the MWR driver admits there are concerns about Chicagoland, the 1.5-mile track that begins the Chase Sunday on NBCSN.
Bowyer has one top five there in nine starts and has only led eight laps.
“Chicago is probably my biggest fear because we’ve been down on aero all year long on these mile-and-a-halves and that’s certainly the first one. But I’m telling you, if you see that 15 ball come out of Chicago with a top 10, the race is on.”
Probably an indication of his new-found confidence, Bowyer mentioned Talladega Superspeedway before commenting on Chicagoland. The restrictor-plate track won’t be visited until the final race of the Contender Round. Bowyer has two wins and an average finish of 15.3 at that track.
“Talladega is always a crap shoot, but the way I look at it, that’s an opportunity,” Bowyer said. “If you can go to Talledega and have a good run there, that catapults you in big, big way.”
If Bowyer is able to capitalize on the chances the Chase offers, it’ll mean a measure of relief for 217 employees that will be out of work at season’s end.
Bowyer said while the team won’t be lacking resources through the rest of the season, that doesn’t mean manpower will be 100 percent all the way through the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“As the year comes to a close, people that can find jobs are certainly going to go get that job,” Bowyer said. “That’s where you’re probably going to run into trouble the most. (You) better not be tearing much stuff up because you might not have anybody to fix it. You might be down there by yourself fixing it.”
As a driver who has been on both ends of the points spectrum in the Chase format, Bowyer says being on the bubble is “by far, way less stressful” than being on top.
“It’s fun to go into that, no pressure on, you just go out there and push it as hard as you can, throw it all out there,” Bowyer said. “I think in doing that you can usually have a lot more success, regardless of the success you’ve had during the year. ”
Bowyer believes one needs only a “solid” performance level to make it through the first two rounds. After two years of struggles for Bowyer and his team, the No. 15 is one of the last 16 standing.
“After the year that we had, the last two years really, it’s just been kind of disappointing for me,” Bowyer said. “That being said, look where we are? We’re in the Chase.”