|Clint Bowyer is 20/1 to win the Daytona 500.|
Does that mean there’s pressure going into 2018? Sure, he says, just like it’s been every year since he started full-time Cup Series racing in 2006.
“Every year is a make-or-break year in this business. It doesn’t matter if it is your first year or your third year or beginning your 13th year,” said Bowyer, who finished second in the 2012 championship and third in the 2007 title chase but just missed a playoff berth in 2017. “There is always that pressure and it is always on. Nobody puts that on us, we put it on ourselves. We are competitors.”
The 2017 season was one of “almosts” at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) for Bowyer, who replaced retiring three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart in the No. 14 car. The 38-year-old native of Emporia, Kansas finished second three times and third twice, plus he owned a 15.5 average finish –11th best among full time drivers. Despite running well, he and his crew chief Mike “Buga” Bugarewicz-led team believe they need to run even more consistently and reach victory lane in 2018.
“Buga and I expect to win races and make the playoffs,” Bowyer said. “We had the same goal last year and we’ll have the same goal this year. There’s no doubt in my mind we can make the playoffs and we need to get back to victory lane. It’s been too long and it’s time go there again.”
Bowyer will have the resources to accomplish those goals in 2018. SHR owns 39 victories in 972 starts since Stewart and Gene Haas began the organization that celebrates its 10th season in 2018. Roush-Yates Engines will power his No. 14 Fords again for a veteran group of mechanics and pit crew.
Off the track, the colors of Rush Truck Centers will adorn the No. 14 entry for several races in 2018, including the Feb. 18 Daytona 500 season opener. Bowyer will drive a Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Ford paint scheme at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
“Our Daytona paint scheme has a story behind it,” Bowyer said. “A great business relationship has grown between ExxonMobil and Rush Truck Centers’ 100-plus dealerships. You’ll see co-branded cars and they are both seeing big wins that came from the mutual SHR sponsorships. That’s how this business works, now. You have to do as well off the track as you do on the track.”
Bugarewicz said that, as much as anything else, familiarity should pay dividends for the No. 14 team in 2018. Both he and Bowyer are intense competitors often combining for interesting radio chatter during races. The Pennsylvanian says that intensity is all about wanting to win.
“We are continuing to build on that relationship,” the third-year crew chief said. “We’ve had a year to fill our notebook. There’s still a lot of work to be done on everybody’s part on the No. 14. We’re going to keep working hard. We didn’t get a victory like we wished for last year but ran in the top-10 most of the year. It was kind of tough to be outside looking in at the end of the season last year. None of us on the team were happy about missing the playoffs. We want to work and we want to get better. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication to get wins, be more consistent and get to where we want to go.”
The points-paying season begins with the 60th running of the Daytona 500 and Bowyer could think of no better way to kick off the season than with a victory in the sport’s most prestigious event. SHR teammate Kurt Busch won last year’s Daytona 500 and Bowyer would like to make it consecutive victories in the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing.”
“Can you imagine what it would be like if I won the Daytona 500?” Bowyer said with a laugh. “I think NASCAR would have a tough time finding me for those New York interviews on Monday and Tuesday. You know those yachts in the harbor in Daytona? I wouldn’t care whose it was, I’d take one of them to the Caribbean.”
Bowyer should be one of the favorites when the green flag drops. The race will mark Bowyer’s 434th Cup Series start and his 25th Cup Series start at Daytona, where he has four top-five finishes and 13 top-10s. Two of his eight career Cup Series victories have come on restrictor-plate tracks, and he finished second at Daytona last July. The report card at the end of the year will focus on wins and playoffs, and a Daytona 500 victory would most certainly earn Bowyer an “A” grade for his first test of the 2018 season.
CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What does the Daytona 500 mean to you?
“The Daytona 500 is the race everyone wants to win. I’ve gotten close several times at that race. It’s one of those tracks you feel like, ‘Darn it, I’m gonna win this someday.’ Forget about points and everything else. You want that trophy at the end of the race. I really don’t know what I’d do if I won the Daytona 500. Racing with SHR is one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had and the confidence is as high as it’s ever been.”
Do you feel like the season just ended?
“No. These kids change your life in an offseason. No more vacations and gallivanting around. It is dad duty. I was home probably five weeks. I think the most I have ever been home since I moved to North Carolina was maybe three weeks. It was like chomping at the bit. I had a friend call and say, ‘Hey, you wanna go to Nashville?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I am going to start walking now.’ Just to do something, you know? It is a ton of fun. The holidays are just way more meaningful and enjoyable. You are over it quick though. The entertaining and partying and eating, my God. You are over that by New Years. I didn’t even make it to New Years. I wanted to go back to work. So, I enjoyed one last hurrah. I am so ready to go to Daytona and get started.”
What would you change about last year?
“Confetti. More confetti. That is what I would want to change about my ride from last year. Hey, it was a learning year, man, I am telling you. There was a lot to overcome last year and you hate making excuses and talking about last year and everything. There are no excuses but there was a lot to overcome at SHR and I think the people there did a great job of handling all of it and making the most of it in a short amount of time. Things happened quick last year and, the next thing you knew, it was playoff time and it was over for us. It was trying to learn as much as we could to make that 14 car as fast as possible to win the championship. Things were happening at a rapid pace last year.”
What are your thoughts on new teammate Aric Almirola?
“Of course, he is a good dude and I think he is a great asset to our already great organization. I think he is a good guy. He really is. His family is awesome. They are always at the track and his kids are always running around. You can tell a lot about a guy by how his kids act. He has great kids. The racer in him, he has never had that opportunity. No knock on anything he has ever been in but this is his opportunity to shine in good equipment and I look for him to do so.”
MIKE BUGAREWICZ, Crew Chief of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What do you think of your chances in the Daytona 500?
“The SHR speedway program last year was pretty strong. Kurt (Busch) won the Daytona 500 and Clint finished second there in July. We felt like, every superspeedway race, we had strong cars. I like Daytona and Clint loves Daytona. I see this as our first opportunity to win and that’s exciting. We want wins and contend for a championship.”