Clint Bowyer and many of his fellow drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series readily admit they haven’t quite figured out Kentucky Speedway in Sparta.
Bowyer, driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), has been competing at the 1.5-mile oval since it joined the circuit in 2011. Whether it was on the rough and bumpy surface prior to its 2016 repave or on the smooth and slick asphalt drivers experienced last year, Kentucky has proven to be a challenging venue.
It will remain so when teams descend upon the track located 40 miles southwest of Cincinnati for Round No. 18 on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule.
“Kentucky is just a hard track,” Bowyer said. “Ever since I tested there early in my career, it seems like I’ve torn up a lot of equipment. Kentucky is extremely hard on stuff. I think it’s a grip-level thing. It’s so flat getting into turn three, so you get loose. You can’t get it tight enough to get through turn three before you need it loose enough to get through turns one and two.”
Bowyer has enjoyed mixed success at the track that hosted its first Cup Series race in 2011. He’s scored the 15th-most points of all active drivers in the six Cup Series races at Kentucky, highlighted by a third-place finish in 2013.
SHR has won 38 races in 896 Cup Series races over nine seasons but has yet to win at Kentucky or Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Kentucky and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway are the only two Cup Series tracks where SHR co-owner Tony Stewart never won a Cup Series race during his historic career that netted 49 victories and three championships.
“I’d say we have some incentive,” Bowyer said. “I’d love to be the guy who gives SHR its first win at Kentucky and, if you can ever do something that Tony didn’t do, then you know it’s a heck of an achievement.”
What makes Kentucky difficult for the drivers is its ever-changing nature. For years, the track proclaimed its rough surface posed an extra challenge for drivers. In January 2016, a full repave began, featuring increased banking in turns one and two, plus an additional 3,200 feet of SAFER Barriers. The banking in turns one and two increased from 14 to 17 degrees, narrowing the racing groove in the process. Turns three and four remained at their original 14 degrees. In October 2016, the track added another layer to its racing surface in preparation for the 2017 season.
Bowyer said no matter the configuration, success will again come down to the team and driver that bring a fast car and lots of downforce.
“We say this all the time, but you have to have a lot of downforce whenever you run on a new repave,” he said. “It always comes back to the almighty downforce. Hopefully, the aerodynamics guys at SHR have done their homework and we’ll be ready for it.”
Based on recent performances, the No. 14 crew will be ready and one of the favorites. Bowyer and the No. 14 team led by second-year crew chief Mike Bugarewicz have finished second in the last two Cup Series races. SHR teammate Kevin Harvick took the victory in front of late-charging Bowyer June 25 at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, and Ricky Stenhouse beat Bowyer to the finish line by mere car lengths Saturday night at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
Saturday night marked the third second-place finish for the No. 14 team that has posted four top-five performances in 2017 and scored the 10th-most points. But in NASCAR’s playoff points system, Bowyer is 15th of the 16 qualifiers, only 27 points ahead of 17th-place Joey Logano. Bowyer said he appreciates how well the team is running but, with only nine races before the playoffs begin, anything less than a victory each weekend is a disappointment.
“Second sucks, but it's better than third,” Bowyer said. “We finished second two weeks in a row, so that’s a huge confidence booster for our team but, nonetheless, the pressure cooker is turning up. You hope you keep riding this wave and turn one of those seconds into a win.”
He’ll do that if he figures out Kentucky.