If any driver’s 2015 season could be described as a rollercoaster, it would be Clint Bowyer’s.
The Emporia, Kan., native entered Speedweeks with a new contract with Michael Waltrip Racing and a feeling that he would be able to overcome the struggles plaguing his team and make the Chase for the third time in four years.
But as he drove his No. 15 Toyota Camry around the high banks of Daytona during group qualifying for the 500, all that optimism came crashing to a halt after tangling with Reed Sorenson.
“It’s idiotic to be out here doing this,” he said after the wreck in reference to group qualifying. “There’s no sense in trying to put on some cute show for whatever the hell this is. We used to come down here and worry about who was gonna sit on the pole for the biggest race of the year. Now all we do is come down here and worry about how a start-and-park like this, out of desperation is going to knock us out of the Daytona 500.”
Both drivers were able to make the race following the Duels, and Bowyer finished seventh in the Daytona 500. A good start to the season — an uphill climb on the coaster.
The next 10 races, however, saw Bowyer only finish in the top 20 three times, at the short tracks of Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond, Bowyer’s bread and butter. It was becoming clear to Bowyer and MWR that the team’s struggles were not, in fact, solved. Down the first drop.
The all-star break gave Bowyer a chance to inject himself back into the conversation. He was able to win the Sprint Showdown, qualifying himself for the Sprint All-Star Race. A solid qualifying run for that race put him fourth on the grid. While he didn’t contend for the win, he finished a solid 12th and hoped that the extra track time would help the team in the following week’s Coca-Cola 600.
Bowyer finished 20th, slightly outperforming his to-date average at 1.5-mile tracks of 22nd. From there, the team fired on all cylinders, giving Bowyer a summer stretch where he finished seven of 10 races from Dover to Watkins Glen in the top 10, including a season-best finish of third at Sonoma. Other highlights included a 10th at Michigan, sixth at Indianapolis and eighth at Pocono. The team was 14th in points, poised to make the Chase and heading back to Michigan in a race that many thought the team could win. Riding high again.
On lap 126 of that race, however, Bowyer spun on the backstretch and tagged the inside wall. While he dropped a spot in the points, it wasn’t the biggest blow to his season, not by a longshot. That would come three days later. On Aug. 19, it was announced that MWR would no longer field a full-time car in the Sprint Cup Series in 2016, meaning Bowyer was back on the market as a free agent.
You know those unforeseen drops on the coaster after a tight turn? That was it. And it was the beginning of a flurry of ups and downs for the rest of his season.
Up: Bowyer did make the Chase, largely on the strength of his summer stretch and top 10s in two of the final three races of the regular season.
Down: Bowyer’s team was hit with a P4 penalty following the Chase-opening race at Chicagoland, the penalty wiping out the 25 points he’d earned in that race. The team appealed the penalty, but would ultimately lose, meaning the team would have to win one of the remaining races at New Hampshire and Dover to advance.
Up: The week of the cutoff race at Dover, Bowyer announced that he would be joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017, replacing Tony Stewart in the No. 14 following Stewart’s retirement after the 2016 season. His excitement was evident in the press conference announcing the move, called the partnership like “falling in a pile of cow manure and coming out smelling like roses.” A couple of days later, Bowyer announced he will race for HScott Motorsports in 2016, replacing Justin Allgaier in the No. 51.
Down: Bowyer missed the next round of the Chase and struggled through the final seven races of the season. While the team was able to finally get a handle on its 1.5-mile program – with finishes of 11th at Charlotte and 15th at Texas – crashes at Kansas, Martinsville and Homestead (including two 43rd-place finishes) canceled out the momentum.
Bowyer ultimately finished dead last in the 16-driver Chase, failing to beat even Matt Kenseth, who was suspended for two races, by 59 points. The journey from Daytona to Homestead was a journey that most drivers won’t ever experience in their careers, and Bowyer handled it with poise and even found a way to finish in the top 10 12 times.
While Bowyer will be moving on to a new team in 2016, he does so with an appreciation for the team that got him to Victory Lane three times since 2012. His tweet before the season finale at Homestead said it all.
As I race my last race for @MWRteam. I want thank Michael Rob Ty and every single employee that worked hard to get me to the racetrack.
— Clint Bowyer (@ClintBowyer) November 22, 2015