There’s a mystery driver these days putting up big time numbers – just without the big time accolades to go with it. He has six victories in the last three years, more than Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, or Kurt Busch on the Cup Series level. During that span, his 53 top-10 finishes collected are greater than all but three drivers: Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick. It’s a collection of stats made more impressive by the fact that A) he’s switched teams the last two years and B) he’s never been the number one driver in any organization he’s been a part of.
When are we going to give Clint Bowyer the credit he’s due?
As the championship drive enters the homestretch, Bowyer sits in fourth place, 28 points behind the three expected contenders, but with so few supporters he might as well be considered the Libertarian candidate for president. In reality, should he go on a tear and win three of the last four races, the title still remains within his grasp; _at worst,_ a top-5 point finish, his third in the last six years should be easy to attain.
“We’re still in the thing,” said Bowyer after fuel mileage turned a top-5 car into earning a trophy at Charlotte. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing. Talladega was a huge setback, but what a great way to bounce back and get pointed in the right direction.”
Everyone talks in terms of would haves, could haves, and should haves. But keep in mind Bowyer entered the green-white-checkered at ‘Dega a week ago battling with Matt Kenseth for the lead before being forced under the yellow line on the backstretch. If that contact never happened, leaving the No. 15 toward the front and perhaps ahead of the wreck that ensued, he’d be closer to point leader Brad Keselowski than anyone else. It’s quite an achievement, happening with a first-year team that didn’t even exist 12 months ago in the biggest Silly Season gamble of 2011. More than a few critics questioned the risk, as Bowyer went from the security of Richard Childress Racing to the relative unknown of a Michael Waltrip-owned Toyota team that had never even _made the Chase_ in its five years of existence.
“I was almost uncomfortable going to the shop at the beginning of the year because I didn’t know one face there,” the driver explained. “I knew Ty Norris (general manager) and Brian Pattie (crew chief) and Michael (Waltrip, team co-owner) — but other than that I didn’t know anybody there. To walk into a new family and to be able to have the success we’re having, it’s an unbelievable opportunity.”
Before he walked in the door at MWR, there were three teams and zero Chase appearances. Nine months into 2012, they’ve got two cars in the postseason and a third on the outside looking in only because the driving is split between Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, and Michael Waltrip. Sure, Martin’s veteran leadership has contributed, while Bowyer’s lead mechanic, Pattie, has worked wonders in bringing structure to an organization that badly needed extra leadership. But no one can reach Bowyer’s hand and turn the wheel left on command.
So why do people never think of Bowyer as a championship driver? One reason may be that many of his eight victories have come as a result of weird coincidences. Consider…
– In the Spring of 2008, he won Richmond because Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch made contact in the infamous ending that forced Busch to leave the track under the cover of darkness – and with maximum security.
– In the Fall of 2010, he won the first Chase race, New Hampshire, because Tony Stewart up ahead ran out of fuel on the last lap. Days later, the team was assessed a 150-point penalty for failing post-race inspection; the car didn’t fit NASCAR’s template in a controversial call that was appealed all the way up to their version of the Supreme Court (to no avail).
– His other win that year, Talladega, was controversial after a last-lap caution came out for AJ Allmendinger’s flip. Bowyer was determined to be just ahead of Harvick after a lengthy replay process to determine when the yellow light came on; the two were in a virtual dead heat.
– At Infineon this year, Kurt Busch was believed to be the faster car, despite Bowyer’s 71 laps led but on-track contact kept the No. 51 from truly competing for the victory down the stretch.
– At Richmond this Fall, he got out front after a controversial series of rain delays nearly ended the race not once, but twice, jumbling up the running order with a confusing series of pit strategies.
– At Charlotte this Saturday, Bowyer was about the fifth-fastest car but triumphed when everyone in front of him had to pit for gas.
Notice that’s six of eight career victories listed, a high number to be connected to extraordinary circumstances. Only at New Hampshire in 2007, when Bowyer led 222 of 300 laps after winning the pole, could he have been considered dominant en route to first place.
It was that season in which then-crew chief Gil Martin let a secret slip that I think has stayed with Bowyer. Down the stretch that year, he hammered into his driver a strategy of “top-10’ing them to death” – racing conservatively for the best finish possible but tiptoeing the car out of trouble, knowing that the Chase is where the modern-day NASCAR focus is at. Once the postseason began, that’s where his driver “let loose,” jumping from entering the contest dead last to a career-high third-place finish in the championship.
That’s the type of attitude Bowyer seems to convey on-track today. A likable extrovert, and friends with virtually everyone in the Cup Series garage, he doesn’t carry the “Iceman,” Terry Labonte’s personality. Yet the “invisible” driving style, in terms of quiet consistency, is rather similar. Bowyer never leads a lot of laps, collects top-5 finishes (he has just 19 the last three years, an average of six per season), or is thought of as one of the sport’s best drivers.
Instead, he makes a habit of making sure his car is around for the finish of the race, comfortable with a top-10 performance as if it’s as good as a win. At one point, Bowyer was challenging Herman Beam’s all-time record of 84 consecutive races without a DNF – he went 83 straight before getting caught up in a Darlington wreck in 2010. Driving good equipment, and knowing how to keep it in one piece, is half the battle when it comes to NASCAR competition. And if you put yourself in position to win enough times, as Jeff Burton likes to say the pendulum will always start to swing in your direction. Add in an ability to be coached, whether it’s from Pattie or Martin or Waltrip or even spotter Brett Griffin, and you’ve got an athlete that has an ability to keep evolving.
“What I love about Clint is he listens to them [during the race],” Waltrip said Saturday night. “Even though he’s this guy who can drive a car like very few people can. He takes all that information, and you’d like to tell him to leave him alone, I think, but he knows that it helps.”
A driver that listens, is charismatic (Bowyer had the press laughing and engaged throughout his postrace press conference), down-to-earth, and young enough (33) to connect to the 18-to-34 crowd NASCAR is aching to attract. So why isn’t Bowyer a central focus once again?
Maybe this win will be the start of a shift.
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