By DAVE SKRETTA
The Associated Press
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The last few years, Clint Bowyer showed up at Kansas Speedway twice each season and dutifully handled every interview request, sponsorship event and promotional opportunity pushed his way.
He grew up in Emporia, just north of Wichita. It’s his home track.
He always felt a sense of obligation, even when he was running at the back of the pack.
The demands on Bowyer’s time have only increased this week at Kansas, now that he’s back at the front. His fruitless one-year stopover with tiny HScott Motorsports has segued into his new fulltime ride with Stewart-Haas Racing, and he characterized the change in teams this way: “When I walked out of one building and got into the other one, it was a fun time. Trust me.”
“It was overnight,” Bowyer said. “I woke up one morning as a Stewart-Haas employee.”
The last couple years were akin to a nightmare.
He was uncompetitive during the final days of Michael Waltrip Racing, then signed on to drive for Harry Scott last season. He wound up leading just three laps, finished in the top 10 three times and never made the top five. His average finish of 23.6 was by far the worst of his career.
“Yeah, last year sucked,” Bowyer said. “It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t fun for anybody, especially me. The good news is the bus picked us up and we jumped on the fun bus clear back in Daytona.”
The dividends of driving for one of the sport’s established multicar teams paid off there, when Bowyer started sixth and had a strong car before crashing out. He’s completed every lap since then and led 10 last week at Talladega, the first time he’s had Tony Stewart’s old No. 14 in front.
Along the way, Bowyer put together a four-race stretch where he finished third at California, seventh at Martinsville, just outside the top 10 at Texas and second at Bristol.
That leaves Bowyer ninth in points heading into tonight’s race.
“We are knocking on the door,” he said. “We aren’t knocking enough but last week we led some laps and showed potential again. It takes the total package. You have to put it together.”
There are inevitable growing pains of working with a new team, though.
Bowyer had to get on the same page with his crew chief, Mike Bugarewicz, not to mention more than a dozen crew members responsible for putting his car together. He had new teammates in Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, so he had to establish lines of communication with them.
Much of that can be done in the shop. The rest requires time at the track.
“We have a good baseline established and that is with no notes or nothing to work with,” Bowyer said. “No experience with one another. No communication. We are learning all those things and you can see it getting better each week. Where you get excited is going back to these tracks a second time and having a notebook established and line of communication down where you know what to expect and you can capitalize and better your position. Some of those races, better would be a win.”
It’s been 159 races since his last one, back in 2012, when Bowyer reached victory lane a career-best three times. He had seven other top-five finishes that year, won more than $5 million for Michael Waltrip Racing and finished second to Brad Keselowski in the series standings.
If he’s on the verge of ending that drought, Kansas would be the ideal place.
Once Bowyer finishes all those interview, sponsorship and promotional commitments, he gets a chance to spend time with friends and family, many of whom make the 100-mile drive every race weekend from his hometown of Emporia. It’s a chance to get back to his roots — Bowyer once raced late models at nearby Lakeside Speedway — and reconnect with the people who helped him along the way.
He considers Kansas his home track, even if he’s never won a Cup Series race on it.
“If that was to happen, I probably wouldn’t be in very good shape for Mother’s Day. We would probably have to postpone that to Monday,” he said. “It would be huge to win at home and finally seal the deal after all this time. It would be ultra-special.”