No. 14 Haas Automation Ford crew chief Mike Bugarewicz begins each Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend with the hope of getting driver Clint Bowyer to victory lane. With two top-five finishes already in the 2017 season, a Bowyer trip to victory lane isn’t out of the realm of possibilities when the Cup Series travels to Pocono (Pa.) Raceway for Sunday’s Pocono 400.
Winning this weekend would be extra special for the man everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) calls “Buga,” who grew up in the backyard of the 2.5-mile track.
“There’s a simple, one-word description I have of Pocono, and it’s ‘home,’” Bugarewicz said. “I grew up about 20 minutes from the racetrack. I’ve raced up in the Northeast and attended many of the races at Pocono. I used to go to qualifying all the time there. Pocono means a lot to me. It would really mean a lot to me to have a win there at some point in my career. I haven’t been successful with that, yet, but I hope to change that shortly.”
Bugarewicz grew up in Lehighton, Pennsylvania competing on the high school football, wrestling and track and field teams. He also spent a lot of time watching his father race at Mahoning Valley (Pa.) Speedway and working on cars at his father’s business long before he even owned a driver’s license. He studied mechanical engineering and performed research for the U.S. Navy through Applied Research Laboratories in graduate school at Penn State University before heading to North Carolina to embark on a NASCAR career that peaked at SHR.
He won a championship serving as the lead engineer on SHR’s No. 4 car with driver Kevin Harvick in 2014. He took over the No. 14 crew chief duties in 2016 for driver Tony Stewart’s final year of NASCAR competition. Bugarewicz’s decision to pit Stewart with 25 laps remaining in the race at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway last year, despite dropping him to 32nd, turned out to be genius as a caution two laps later enable Stewart to take the lead. The three-time champion made a last-lap pass for his 49th and final Cup Series victory.
The victory propelled Stewart into the playoffs with Bugarewicz the only rookie crew chief among the 16 participants. The arrival of Clint Bowyer in 2017 hasn’t slowed the rate of success. The No. 14 is 10th in points after 13 races despite a 31st-place finish last weekend at Dover (Del.) Speedway. Bowyer had driven from 22nd to fourth in the opening 100 laps before an oil leak sent him behind the wall.
Bowyer’s happy-go-lucky personality and Bugarewicz’s seriousness are a contrast but make for a good combination.
“Man, it is the hardest thing to try to get a laugh out of him or a rise in any way other than just pissed or completely disgusted with me – it is a lot of fun though,” Bowyer said with a laugh, pointing out his 35-year-old crew chief is one of the youngest in the garage.
“The work ethic is what you care about and I think that is what he cares about with me,” Bowyer continued, “as long as I show up for my meetings and take my work seriously. It has been a while since I’ve had someone as dedicated as Mike is. You literally have to tell him to go home, go eat dinner with your family, take your wife out to dinner, do something to get your mind off this. He will call you and 9 or 10 o’clock at night and he is still working. That work ethic is instilled in pretty much everybody at Stewart-Haas, and Mike is no exception. We are very fortunate to have him. He has brought me a lot of good hot rods already.”
Sunday’s race will mark Bowyer’s 411th career Cup Series start and 23rd career Cup Series start at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, where he has two top-five finishes and nine top-10s and has led 91 laps. He knows winning Sunday would be special for his crew chief.
“Pocono is a really tough track with three different turns,” Bowyer said. “I want to make sure we qualify well so we can get a good starting position and pit stall. Winning in Pennsylvania with Buga would be cool. He’d be thrilled. Heck, so would all of us.”