Could this be Clint Bowyer’s year in more ways than one?
The Emporia, Kansas, native is already among several oddsmakers’ picks as one of the top favorites in the February 17 Daytona 500.
In addition, Bowyer is coming off his best season – he finished 12th in 2018 – since he was runner-up in the NASCAR Cup standings in 2012 and seventh in 2013.
Most important, Bowyer reached victory lane twice last season (Martinsville 1, Michigan 1), his first wins since he took the checkered flag three times in 2012. He also had nine top-five and 16 top-10 finishes. He also led a career-high 490 laps.
Yes, things have really come together of late for the driver of the Stewart Haas Racing No. 14 Ford Mustang. Now, as he enters his third season with SHR, Bowyer (who turns 40 in May) could be in the best place in his career in a long time.
And he equally could be in the best place to win the Daytona 500 for the first time in his career. To date, his best showing in The Great American Race has been fourth (2009 and 2010).
“I know there is a lot going on rules-wise in 2019, but that’s for later,” said Bowyer, who crossed the finish line of the 2007 Daytona 500 with his car upside down and on fire. “Let me tell you, the Daytona 500 is still going to be the Daytona 500. That’s still the ‘Granddaddy of Them All’ and the race everyone wants to win. You are still going to see the same wild racing and the same intensity. That’s going to be must-see television, for sure.”
Much of the upgrade in Bowyer’s performance the last two seasons has come from crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. After directing Tony Stewart in his final NASCAR Cup season, Bugarewicz took on crew chief duties for Stewart’s replacement in the No. 14, Bowyer.
“We improved a lot last year and plan to keep that going this year,” Bowyer said. “I know Mike (Bugarewicz) and everyone at SHR, plus the Roush-Yates guys, have worked really hard in the offseason to keep us going. That hard work will pay off.”
Now as they enter their third season together, Bowyer and Bugarewicz have priorities in mind: To do well first in the 75-lap Advanced Auto Parts Clash on Feb. 10 (Bowyer’s first appearance in The Clash since 2016), and then the 500.
“We’re glad to be back in The Clash where we belong,” Bowyer said. “That’s going to be the first time we race against each other and gets us a jump on learning where our stuff is at before we race again Thursday in the qualifying races.”
Once Daytona is over, Bowyer is looking ahead to how NASCAR’s new aerodynamic and engine rules package will play out.
Nearly half – 17 of the season’s 36 races – will have the combination of a smaller tapered spacer to reduce horsepower from 750 to 550, as well as aero ducts designed to bring about tighter racing on speedways one-mile and longer in length.
Five additional races will be run with the smaller spacer but without the air ducts.
“This is a drastic rule change,” Bowyer said. “The face of our sport is going to be different.”
Along with 20 other drivers, Bowyer tested the new package last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“Time will tell what opinions are made, and certainly I’ll form my opinion when that time comes,” he said. “Testing is one thing. When you get to race weekend with 40 cars, it’s a whole different story. Right now, I’m focused on Daytona.”
Bowyer not only likes what he sees from looking at his new Mustang, he also likes its potential for Daytona. Because it replaces the Fusion, all Ford drivers – including SHR teammates Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez, as well as Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and defending Cup champion Joey Logano – will all be on the same page for at least the first few races of 2019.
“I have said for years that we should be running the Mustang in the Cup Series, and this year I get my wish,” said Bowyer, who finished 15th in last year’s Daytona 500. “I’m a car guy and there isn’t anything much cooler than a good-looking Mustang.
“I think the fans are going to be pretty excited to see my Mustang out on the track. Ford Performance is top notch and I know they’ve put a lot of thought behind it and I’d love nothing better than to drive a Mustang to victory lane in the Daytona 500.”
Given the way things have been going – and how he hopes to keep them going in the same direction in 2019 – Bowyer may very well get his wish granted.