Since the racing mecca that is Memorial Day weekend, NASCAR Nextel Cup’s gotten busy honoring itself with a litany of breakthrough performances by drivers suddenly making a name for themselves. One by one, these men have come forward to claim their winning lotto tickets to the relative surprise of the racing public. Casey Mears, Martin Truex Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya; all three men searching fruitlessly for momentum until they stumbled upon their biggest stock car prize, wrapped in a box that included one life-changing Sunday at the track.
Well, Clint Bowyer‘s still waiting for that special present to come his way, and that’s beginning to pose a problem. A winless wonder, his Chase hopes may lie squarely in the ability for him to get over the hump and into Victory Circle.
The past month has served as a bit of a cruel irony for a man making a name for himself in his sophomore season driving Cup. Of all the winless drivers entering this season, Bowyer has been knocking on the door louder and harder to take his first checkered flag for quite sometime. In a recent survey of Nextel Cup drivers released in this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated, 65% of those polled picked Bowyer as the man next in line to visit his first Victory Lane. That’s a man who’s earning his respect among his peers, but not the actual win he covets.
“That’s hard,” Bowyer reflected Friday on his biggest deficiency. “Everybody seems like they’ve been winning their first race this year, and we still haven’t done that.”
So why is everyone else leapfrogging Bowyer on the win list? Well, it’s not like the No. 07 hasn’t had its share of opportunities; what it hasn’t had is its share of luck.
Take Sunday, for example. Bowyer started the race 20th but looked to have a top-10 car at New Hampshire. Of course, that was just about the time Ryan Newman‘s crew decided to leave their air hose out on lap 122, just the perfect obstacle for the No. 07 to run right over. The thump of the impact left an oil line broken and Bowyer’s spirit crushed. While Newman recovered for a top-10 finish, the No. 07 got busy losing a total of seven laps in the pits repairing the problem. In the end, that left the Bowyer 36th and, in another cruel bit of irony, allowed Newman to close to within 128 points of overtaking him in the standings for a Chase slot.
While remaining one point ahead of 12th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., make no bones about it, 11th-place Bowyer continues to be the Chase contender most vulnerable of losing his championship opportunity. Of all the drivers currently in the top 12, Bowyer has led the least laps of any of them (just 23 in 17 races; that’s an average of one per race) and joins the short list of Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart as the only drivers in the Chase who haven’t won.
Because of that, Bowyer continues to be a man overlooked. No. 3 on the totem pole at RCR, he’s also third on the food chain of sophomore sensations; Truex and Denny Hamlin have both leapfrogged him in public perception and on-track statistics. Any other crop of rookies, any other year, Bowyer’s development in his second season would be impressive; now, he’s just trying to do what he needs to in order to keep up.
“We’ve come close a few times, but we’ve got to have that lucky break,” explained Bowyer. “You just got to have that day. Truex, I really feel like they’ve been getting better and better, but we’ve been a better race team since we’ve came over here to the Cup Series, and I don’t feel guilty saying that. It’s frustrating to see those guys win their first race (and run well) when you’ve been a little bit better.”
“We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing. In this series, it’s all about the Chase and racing for that championship. Richard pays us to win races and chasing that championship. Certainly, winning a race is definitely high up on my list to do.”
“I can’t think of a better place to get your first win than Daytona, so we’ve just got to.”
If not Daytona, it’s got to be somewhere; more than ever, this team is becoming in need of a momentum infusion that you just don’t get except by finishing first.