It’s getting to be that time of year.
Only eight races remain in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season and Clint Bowyer, along with several other big-name drivers in the sport, are battling for one of the final spots in NASCAR’s 16-driver playoffs. With 10 different winners locked in so far after 18 races, it appears a championship-caliber driver could miss this year’s playoffs.
Bowyer doesn’t want to be that guy.
“The pressure cooker is certainly turning up,” said Bowyer, who has scored the second-most points of any driver in the last three Cup Series races. The trio of finishes includes second-place runs at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway and Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, as well as 13th place at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta last Saturday night.
Bowyer is 15th in the playoff standings as he and his No. 14 Nature’s Bakery/Feeding America Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) head to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Overton's 301. He knows the quickest and safest way to earn a playoff berth is to win a race before the regular-season finale Sept. 9 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
That could come this weekend on the mile oval in New Hampshire, where he won the fall races in 2007 and 2010 and has posted four top-five finishes and seven top-10s in 22 starts.
“Those wins allow you to go into this race with more confidence than you would at a track where you haven’t won,” Bowyer said. “I feel like we can win again at New Hampshire this weekend. We really want to win, but we also want to make sure we don’t do anything that will knock us out of the points.”
Bowyer said as the regular season races wind down, the intensity picks up. That’s just what NASCAR and the fans want to see each weekend.
“There will be drivers who don’t have anything to lose,” Bowyer said. “They can’t make it in on points so they have to win. They’ll be willing to take more gambles. They aren’t going to wreck people and take chances that way. They’ll take chances on something like fuel mileage.”
It’s been a successful 2017 season so far for Bowyer, who joined SHR this year after three-time champion Tony Stewart retired from NASCAR competition. Bowyer has posted four top-five finishes and seven top-10s in 2017. The No. 14 team, led by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, has scored the 10th-most points of any team.
But everyone involved knows that to secure a berth in the playoffs, their performance will have to continue to improve.
“It is all about the racecars and making them as fast as possible,” Bowyer said. “That goes for aerodynamics, having the right setup underneath with (computer) simulation and everything. Everything has to be perfect. It is so much more competitive than 10 years ago when I came into this sport. You can’t have a down area. You can’t have a weak link. It is all across the board that you have to be 100-percent perfect.”