Clint Bowyer is still trying to prove that he deserves his seat back at the big kid’s table.
His dominating win in the second segment of the Sprint Showdown on Friday, a win that gave him a spot in Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race, was like watching a grown-up playing against a group of kids in a pickup game.
He didn’t belong in this race, and he knew it.
“Well, it sucked. I wasn't very thrilled about being in this race, but nonetheless, that's what we deserved,” admitted Bowyer in the post-race press conference.
Going winless last season denied his team of an automatic invite into the Sprint All-Star Race. This year, he had to race his way into the big show.
“I'm a big boy,” Bowyer said. “If this is where we are, we've got to go out there and race hard and qualify into that race and become an all-star.”
It was the Kansas native’s first win since the fall of 2012, when he raced to victory here at Charlotte Motor Speedway during one of the Chase races.
This season, Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota, normally seen at the front of the field, has been mid-pack at best, struggling perhaps with the new rules package that has affected several other well-known drivers.
Or maybe, for Bowyer, it’s something more.
Some might say he’s still fighting a losing battle against karma. His actions last fall at Richmond—in which he was accused of trying to intentionally cause a caution to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. qualify for the Chase—led to a scandal for which he and his Michael Waltrip Racing teammates paid for dearly in record fines and sanctions imposed by NASCAR.
It may have placed a dark cloud over his team, striking a near knockout blow to its soul and sending it reeling to the canvas. Bowyer and his team have been struggling ever since, even to get up onto one elbow.
“It's just been a crummy year,” Bowyer said. “It's been so confusing. We've been really fast in practice and for whatever reason not able to back it up in the race. We haven't run well, haven't run where we're capable of running and it's been frustrating. But like I’ve said, it's a humbling sport. It always has been.”
Despite his team’s problems this season, Bowyer has remained the same confident, almost cocky, person he’s always been. He’s gotten married, started a family and moved on from last fall, because he’s had no choice but to move on.
But it was another disastrous race last weekend in Kansas, where he finished 23rd, made even more embarrassing in that the race was sponsored by his car sponsor, 5-Hour Energy, that forced Bowyer to take action. He spent additional time at the race shop this week, talking with his veteran crew chief, Brian Pattie, and suggesting that maybe they try a different approach to the race weekend.
The new approach apparently worked, as Bowyer admitted that, for once, the team had a good practice session, and then during the race, the car remained like it was during practice.
At the end of the night, an even more confident Bowyer found a way to put a positive spin on the reality of his having to participate in the weekend’s qualifying race.
“Truth be told, I really do believe—I'm not just saying this because I'm in the position, I've always said this, if you can qualify into the All-Star Race from this qualifying race, it could be an advantage,” he said during the post-race press conference.
“Every time we have these night races we're practicing during the day, (a) completely different set of circumstances for the race. That was 40 laps of practice with what we're going to see tomorrow night for $1 million, make you holler.”
Bowyer will also get to qualify Saturday night with the rest of the All-Star field, an opportunity made available this year with the new rules package for the race.
His friends in the sport, the ones who park next to him in the drivers' coach lot every weekend, may have forgiven him already. Heck, it could have been them in Bowyer’s shoes at Richmond last September.
So, if Bowyer and his friends in the sport have turned the page and moved on, does that mean it's time for racing fans to do the same?
*All quotes in this column are taken from an official NASCAR media release.
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