DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Clint Bowyer knows all about the second-place jinx.
He knows how Carl Edwards finished second in the standings in 2011 and 2008 and wasn’t a factor in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in the following seasons. Same with Denny Hamlin after finishing second in 2010 and Mark Martin the year before that.
But there’s one big difference in those runner-up performances and Bowyer’s.
“They were super disappointed after that and just dejected,” Bowyer said. “We were excited.”
Bowyer, of Emporia, was no novice last year in challenging for a Sprint Cup championship. He had made the Chase three times in five years for Richard Childress Racing, including a third-place finish in 2007.
Still, few expected Bowyer, in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing, to mount a serious charge for the title. But directed by crew chief Brian Pattie, he had a career-best three wins and eight top-10 finishes in the Chase.
Bowyer would have been in contention to the end had it not been for a 28th place finish in the penultimate race at Phoenix, where Jeff Gordon purposely wrecked Bowyer, instigating a wild melee.
“To finish second in the standings in our first year together … that’s pretty darn cool in my book, ” said Bowyer, who won at Sonoma, Richmond and the Chase race at Charlotte.
He doesn’t see why the team can’t maintain the momentum it generated last season.
“We have excitement on our side, we have mojo, confidence,” Bowyer said. “That’s what’s neat about what we can take from next year. That was the one thing I felt like everybody on the 5-hour Enregy Toyota did all season — was continue to improve right up to the point where we were out of time and came up short.
“But I felt like in those Chase races we picked our program up in a big way and elevated our game — me in a race car, us working together, our chemistry and Brian calling races.”
Waltrip was pleasantly surprised at how well Bowyer and Pattie worked together so quickly.
“I was just amazed at Pattie’s ability to run a race,” Waltrip said. “To help Clint go win races, he really was a master strategist. He understood when to get gas and when to get two tires, and you put a guy behind the wheel like Clint Bowyer — who showed up in NASCAR, and you could tell he could drive a car better than most — and you give him a guy that’s a bit of a risk taker and call maker like Brian Pattie. … They were a fun combination to watch.”
Bowyer qualified 10th for Sunday’s Daytona 500, a race he has flirted with winning. In his seven previous starts, he has three top-six finishes, including back-to-back fourth-place finishes in 2008 and 2009. And his average finish of 12.0 is the best of any active driver who has competed in more than one Daytona 500.
“It’s a good race track for me,” Bowyer said. “I’ve always loved racing here. The biggest thing is if you enjoy places like this, you get good results. It’s a place where some people hate to come. I love it.”
Problem is, with the new Gen-6 car, does Bowyer have to throw out his old notes and start from scratch?
“No, the same principles apply,” Bowyer said. “The style that I’m seeing is what we saw when I first came in to the sport with the old race car and the old surface. Handling is at a premium. Your runs are minimal, so when you get them, you have to take advantage of them.”
And a driver needs a little help from his friends … or even enemies, as he showed in Thursday’s Budweiser Duel when Bowyer led with 10 laps to go but found himself without a drafting partner in a race with just 22 drivers on the track.
“You can’t complete those passes without people willing and able to run with you and complete passes,” Bowyer said. “So far, we’re good. The car is in one piece. … It was strong in areas, it was fast in the corners, kind of fizzled out in the straightaway. That’s something we can massage with the setup. I learned as much as I could. … When we get into the 500, we’ll have runs on people.”
Bowyer, 33, has gotten a taste of some other big sporting events in the past year, attending Kansas’ appearance in the NCAA championship game at the Final Four last April and returning to New Orleans for the Super Bowl this month.
But to him, they don’t compare to the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of stock-car racing, which draws about 150,000 fans.
“This is the biggest one,” Bowyer said. “In my life, in my world, it doesn’t get any bigger than the Daytona 500. The super bowl is big, but it’s not my gig. It’s not what I do.
“I can’t imagine anything bigger than winning the Daytona 500.”