As NASCAR checked video to determine the winner of Sunday’s AMP Energy Juice 500, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick parked next to each other at the start-finish line, near the exit of pit road. Interim No. 33 crew chief Scott Miller and the other crew members chirped to Bowyer that NASCAR was still reviewing the tape and exclaimed how great it was that RCR won the race. They even discussed performing a dual burnout. However, Harvick kept his Realtree Chevy idle on pit road while Bowyer did a poorer job subduing his excitement. With BB&T colors splashed on the No. 33 and still no decision on the race’s winner, Bowyer lit up a billowing burnout at the start-finish line that put any Talladega campground flame to shame. After his Impala came to a rest, the decision from race control became known and the exalting cheers poured across the radio just as the champagne and cold drinks flowed in victory lane. Finally, a cloud of doubt and frustration that had stifled the No. 33 team in the 2010 Chase for the Cup had lifted.
When asked after the race about his decision to prematurely celebrate, Bowyer’s smirk surrounded his answer.
“Hell, yeah! Claim that baby before somebody else does!”
Smiles have not been common for the No. 33 team in the last month-and-a-half. After a dominating win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, NASCAR penalized the team a paralyzing 150 points and suspended crew chief Shane Wilson for six races, all because the racecar did not fit the NASCAR-mandated templates by a minimal margin. While the win stayed with Bowyer, the points pinch dropped him to 12th in the standings and set a nasty tone for the team that reverberated through the Chase. Subsequent finishes of 25th, 15th, second (well, that one wasn’t so bad) and 17th pushed the team even further down in the hole and practically filled it with dirt.
After pit-road issues for Harvick’s No. 29 team at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Richard Childress Racing switched the pit crews between No. 29 and the No. 33 cars to give Harvick, RCR’s only contending horse in the title battle, a better shot at the Cup. This decision left Bowyer distraught – he had been with that crew since the No. 07 Jack Daniel’s days – and that frustration boiled over even more after he got wrecked early in last Sunday’s Martinsville race and finished 38th. Feeling second-rate and piled upon, Bowyer likely entered Talladega with a tinge of pessimism.
Turns out there was no need to put on a sad face; Sunday was his day. Armed with an Earnhardt-Childress Racing engine, Bowyer led 19 laps and seemed to be among the elite drivers that could race to the front when they wanted and not simply end up there. He needed luck for this victory, much like Stewart’s running out of fuel at New Hampshire in September, because teammate Harvick was two-wide with Bowyer in the middle of turns 1 and 2 when a nasty wreck that sent AJ Allmendinger on an airborne ride froze the field and left the two just inches from having an advantage on the other. Either could have won by the end of that lap; but the end of it never happened.
What does Bowyer’s win mean? Coming into Sunday’s race, his three career wins had come at New Hampshire (twice) and Richmond. Two of them had come after trouble with the leaders (remember Kyle Busch spinning leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap in the May 2008 Richmond race? Bowyer snuck by and stole that one.) None had come on tracks of more than one mile. None had come with so much on the line and after so much adversity.
On lap 142, Bowyer received nose and tail damage in a six-car crash that also damaged Harvick’s car. The Emporia, Kan. native was beside himself on the team radio, cursing Marcos Ambrose in the No. 47, whom he’d felt had started the wreck. But the BB&T crew (formerly the Shell/Pennzoil crew) went to work and patched up the No. 33 perfectly. Soon after the green flag came back out on lap 145, both Bowyer and Harvick had shed the doubts they had about their cars’ integrities and congealed themselves with the lead pack. On lap 179, with just a handful of laps remaining, Bowyer surged to the lead until lap 187, when Harvick claimed the lead at the white flag… until his teammate pulled even again and held a nose in front of him at the point of the final caution.
Bowyer’s win may not be memorable in the grand scheme of racing’s epic finishes. It wasn’t the 18th-to-first charge that Dale Earnhardt made in the same race 10 years ago. It wasn’t Earnhardt Jr.’s pass of Matt Kenseth late in the spring 2003 race. However, this victory parallels that of another downtrodden driver, who needed a boost in an equalizing race – Jamie McMurray.
At a crossroads in this very event one year ago, McMurray, winless since July 2007 and unsure of his future, led 32 laps and survived a green-white-checkered finish to win in one of his final races in the Roush Fenway Racing No. 26 Ford. McMurray then moved to the No. 1 Chevy at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, won both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, nearly made the Chase (after four years of completely missing the mark) and won at Charlotte two weeks ago. Now energized and with a new sense of confidence and energy, McMurray has emerged as a solid B or A-minus level driver, who is often a contender and definitely a stud in big races.
While armed with a decent resume, Bowyer has never come off as a stud in the Sprint Cup Series. The consistency has been remarkable, but his picture is rarely used in fantasy racing columns. So maybe, just maybe, with a big win under his belt after climbing mountains of conflict both through the season and through the winning race, Bowyer now has the mojo and the moxie that can carry him to the next level. Only time will tell if this day all is just a fluke or if Bowyer indeed will rise to the occasion, but others like McMurray have set precedence. The future is Bowyer’s.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on AM-750 and NOW 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.