Clint Bowyer’s report card at the end of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season will be pretty straightforward – anything less than a victory or a berth in the playoffs will be a failing grade in the eight-time race winner’s mind.
Does that mean there’s pressure going into 2018? Sure, he says, just like it’s been every year since he started full-time Cup Series racing in 2006.
“Every year is a make-or-break year in this business. It doesn’t matter if it is your first year or your third year or beginning your 13th year,” said Bowyer, who finished second in the 2012 championship and third in the 2007 title chase but just missed a playoff berth in 2017. “There is always that pressure and it is always on. Nobody puts that on us, we put it on ourselves. We are competitors.”
The 2017 season was one of “almosts” at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) for Bowyer, who replaced retiring three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart in the No. 14 car. The 38-year-old native of Emporia, Kansas finished second three times and third twice, plus he owned a 15.5 average finish –11th best among fulltime drivers. Despite running well, he and his crew chief Mike “Buga” Bugarewicz-led team believe they need to run even more consistently and reach victory lane in 2018.
“Buga and I expect to win races and make the playoffs,” Bowyer said. “We had the same goal last year and we’ll have the same goal this year. There’s no doubt in my mind we can make the playoffs and we need to get back to victory lane. It’s been too long and it’s time go there again.”
Bowyer will have the resources to accomplish those goals in 2018. SHR owns 39 victories in 972 starts since Stewart and Gene Haas began the organization that celebrates its 10th season in 2018. Roush-Yates Engines will power his No. 14 Fords again for a veteran group of mechanics and pit crew. Off the track, the colors of Rush Truck Centers will adorn the No. 14 entry for several races in 2018, including the Feb. 18 Daytona 500 season opener.
Bowyer will drive a Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Ford paint scheme at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
“Our Daytona paint scheme has a story behind it,” Bowyer said. “A great business relationship has grown between ExxonMobil and Rush Truck Centers’ 100-plus dealerships. You’ll see co-branded cars and they are both seeing big wins that came from the mutual SHR sponsorships. That’s how this business works, now. You have to do as well off the track as you do on the track.”
Bugarewicz said that, as much as anything else, familiarity should pay dividends for the No. 14 team in 2018. Both he and Bowyer are intense competitors often combining for interesting radio chatter during races. The Pennsylvanian says that intensity is all about wanting to win.
“We are continuing to build on that relationship,” the third-year crew chief said. “We’ve had a year to fill our notebook. There’s still a lot of work to be done on everybody’s part on the No. 14. We’re going to keep working hard. We didn’t get a victory like we wished for last year but ran in the top-10 most of the year. It was kind of tough to be outside looking in at the end of the season last year. None of us on the team were happy about missing the playoffs. We want to work and we want to get better. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication to get wins, be more consistent and get to where we want to go.”
The points-paying season begins with the 60th running of the Daytona 500 and Bowyer could think of no better way to kick off the season than with a victory in the sport’s most prestigious event. SHR teammate Kurt Busch won last year’s Daytona 500 and Bowyer would like to make it consecutive victories in the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing.”
“Can you imagine what it would be like if I won the Daytona 500?” Bowyer said with a laugh. “I think NASCAR would have a tough time finding me for those New York interviews on Monday and Tuesday. You know those yachts in the harbor in Daytona? I wouldn’t care whose it was, I’d take one of them to the Caribbean.”
Bowyer should be one of the favorites when the green flag drops. The race will mark Bowyer’s 434th Cup Series start and his 25th Cup Series start at Daytona, where he has four top-five finishes and 13 top-10s. Two of his eight career Cup Series victories have come on restrictor-plate tracks, and he finished second at Daytona last July.
The report card at the end of the year will focus on wins and playoffs, and a Daytona 500 victory would most certainly earn Bowyer an “A” grade for his first test of the 2018 season.