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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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Garrett Smithley calls wreck with leaders a career low point

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Garrett Smithley said he felt “probably the lowest of my career” Saturday after causing the leaders to wreck late in the Xfinity Series playoff race at Kansas Speedway while he was five laps down.

Smithley said he wasn’t aware the leaders were behind him when he exited Turn 4 and moved up toward the wall. Chase Briscoe, who was leading, and Christopher Bell, who was second, made contact as Briscoe tried to avoid Smithley.

Briscoe finished third. Bell 12th.

“I just didn’t get the memo that he was coming,” Smithley said of the leaders. “(Spotter) Freddie (Kraft) usually does a good job, he always does a good job. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. Something didn’t get transmitted or what. I glanced up. David Starr was back there. I was just riding. We were on like 70-lap tires just riding not even pushing hard. I hated it.”

Asked about the line he ran, going from the bottom in the corners to high on exit, Smithley said:

“I was running my line. If I had known he was back there, I wouldn’t have even done that. I was just riding. I was on 70-lap tires, not even pushing it. Just stupid mistake. I hate that it happened. I hate it for everybody that got involved. I do not want to be that guy by any means. I’ve never been that guy. I hate that that happened.”

It’s the second time in about a month that Smithley has been hit by a faster car while running laps down in a race.

In the Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch ran into the back of Smithley’s car and criticized Smithley’s credentials.

Asked if he feared people would start associating him with those incidents, Smithley said:

“No. What happened at Vegas happened. People spoke and most people were on my side. It was a mistake. People forget how hard this stuff is. Things happen in a split-second decision. Like I said, I didn’t know he was up there. I glanced up and didn’t see him and ran my line and that was it.”

Briscoe demurred on being overly critical of Smithley, saying “I still haven’t seen a replay” when he talked to reporters.

“It is frustrating even without that lap car, just in general,” Briscoe said. “I totally understand lap cars are obviously off the pace and that makes it tough for them. At this place, the fast guys are running the top and there were a lot of guys that would run the top in front of you.

“We are literally racing for our lives trying to lock into a championship. I haven’t seen the replay so it is hard to say. I know I got tagged in the left rear by Bell but at the same time it felt like (Smithley) was going to put me in the fence regardless.”

Told that Smithley said he wasn’t aware Briscoe was behind, Briscoe said: “I feel like he should have general awareness of what is going on. I totally get where he is coming from. It is tough in those situations. I don’t know. I don’t want to comment on it because I have not been in his position, so I am sure it is tough but it is frustrating to say the least on my end. We go from 15 to go thinking we are going to win the race and lock into Homestead and then you are two points back. It is frustrating. I am sure he will reach out and I appreciate that, but it doesn’t much help the fact.”

Said Bell: “I haven’t seen (a replay) so it’s hard for me to say. Obviously I didn’t mean to wreck the 98. It sucks that we tore up two race cars.”

While Bell and Briscoe were judicious in their words, some Cup drivers expressed their feelings on Twitter:

Smithley took responsibility on Twitter:

 

 

Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

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Brandon Jones may have been eliminated from advancement in the Xfinity Series playoffs after the cutoff race at Dover two weeks ago, but on Saturday he lived up to his promise that he’d still win a race in the remainder of the playoffs as the Round of 8 kicked off.

It was Jones’ first win in 134 career Xfinity Series starts. It also was his 14th top-10 finish of 2019.

MORE: Brandon Jones rallies late to earn first career Xfinity win at Kansas

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Chase Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

POINTS:

Even though he finished 12th after being involved in a late race wreck with Briscoe and Garrett Smithley, Christopher Bell still maintains his lead at the top of the heap of the Xfinity Series point standings.

Bell holds an 11-point lead over Cole Custer and is 12 points ahead of Tyler Reddick and 47 points ahead of Justin Allgaier.

Fifth through eighth are Chase Briscoe (-49 points), Michael Annett (-59 points), Noah Gragson (-64 points) and Austin Cindric (-77 points).

Click here for the updated point standings.

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Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after Kansas race

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Xfinity Series championship contenders Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick got involved in a heated confrontation that quickly turned physical after Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Custer, who was angry about Reddick making contact with him, approached his rival after they parked in the pits. Custer put a hand on the shoulder of Reddick, who responded by grabbing Custer with both hands (watch the video above).

The drivers both fell to the ground as they were swarmed by members of both teams. Neither driver seemed to be hurt, though Reddick had a red mark above his right eye.

“I was just frustrated that he can’t keep his car on the bottom and then runs us up into the wall,” Custer told NBC Sports. “If he wants to wreck cars and put them in the wall, that’s fine, but when it affects me, I’m not going to be very happy with him.

“I don’t know. I just went over to talk to him and say that and put my hand on him, and he just went berserk. I thought we had a good car and a shot to win.”

As he approached Reddick, Custer addressed him with “You can be a dumb (expletive).”

“I understand Cole’s frustration 100 percent,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “We’re trying to lock ourselves into Homestead, and he came up to talk after the race. He put a hand on me, I put a hand on him back, and that’s just how it’s going to be if we’re going to have a conversation that way.

“I’m out of breath. Had a fight there with some people, and it was a little bit of fun. I think a lot of Cole and his driving ability.”

Reddick finished runner-up Saturday to Brandon Jones, who won but already had been eliminated from the playoffs and wasn’t eligible to advance to the championship round. Custer finished 10th.

With two races remaining in the Xfinity playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, Reddick and Custer both are comfortably in position to reach the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Custer is 38 points ahead of the cut line, and Reddick is plus-37. Christopher Bell, who crashed with leader Chase Briscoe when he ran into the rear of the lapped car of Garrett Smithley, remained the championship leader at 49 points ahead of Briscoe, who is two points behind fourth-ranked Justin Allgaier

“It was just heat of the moment,” Reddick said of the scuffle. “We’re pissed off. I’m sure we’ll talk about it here soon, maybe today, tomorrow.

“I hate that it happened to him, but we’ll try and move forward. Both of us have a lot left to lose in this deal, and if we take each other out, neither one of us get to Homestead, and I feel we both deserve to be there.”

Reddick and Custer did talk later in the garage as their cars were going through inspection.

Custer also was involved in a notable altercation after a truck race three years ago at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, where he tackled John Hunter Nemechek in anger after they collided on the last lap while racing for the lead.

Nemechek made light of that situation while Custer did postrace interviews Saturday (see the :50 mark of Dustin Long’s Twitter video below).

Brandon Jones rallies to earn first career Xfinity win at Kansas

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After starting from the front row next to pole sitter Christopher Bell, Brandon Jones fell backwards only to roar back late to win his first career Xfinity Series race Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

With the win, the 22-year-old Jones, who was knocked out of the playoffs earlier, still had an impact on how the Round of 8 began.

Jones was in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of late-race misfortune to Chase Briscoe and Bell, who were involved in a wreck with Garrett Smithley with 16 laps to go in the 200-lap event.

Equally as important was the great restart Jones got with four laps to go.

“This is incredible,” Jones told NBCSN. “I knew this would happen, we were going to come here and have an amazing run at the end of the day. … I’m not going to lie, my foot was literally shaking on the accelerator on the last lap, I’m not even sure I was wide open when I was doing it.

“There was a lot of nerve flow and emotion going through my mind but I saw it coming and I got pretty pumped.”

MORE: Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after race

MORE: Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

While Bell led 70 laps and Briscoe 33, their significant efforts were quickly derailed with 16 laps to go.

Briscoe was in the lead, with Bell right behind, when Briscoe tried to pass Garrett Smithley, who was five laps down at the time. But instead of yielding the high line on the track to Briscoe and Bell, Smithley washed up the track and Briscoe could not avoid contact, nor could Bell avoid contract with Briscoe.

Briscoe finished third, while Bell finished 12th.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Christopher Bell (18th stage win of season)

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer (eighth stage win of season)

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Briscoe overcame the late contact with Smithley and Bell to finish third. Also having a strong outing was Michael Annett, who potentially might have had a chance at a win if the race had gone a few more laps.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Making just his sixth start of the season, Ryan Truex had his car blow up on him after just four laps. “It sucks, that was my last race in this car (this season) and probably the best car we’ve had since Phoenix at the start of the year,” Truex told NBC. “We had a top five car for sure. That really sucks that we don’t even have a chance to show what we’ve got. … To not even have a chance is really hard to swallow.” … Harrison Burton, who on Thursday was announced that he would race full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020, made contact with Austin Cindric on Lap 70. “To me, it just felt like I flat out got wrecked,” Burton said of Cindric to NBC Sports. “It’s unfortunate and frustrating. … I guess he didn’t want to race, he just wanted to wreck.” Burton finished 34th, while Cindric was 25th.

NOTABLE: Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick were involved in a pushing and shoving match for about 20 seconds after the race, but were separated.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Xfinity Series has next weekend off. It returns to action for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 2 (8:30 p.m. ET start, on NBCSN).

Follow @JerryBonkowski