DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. NASCAR’s Clint Bowyer was the picture of serenity while relaxing outside his motor coach of Daytona International Speedway.
His two Shih Tzu dogs, Lola and Trip, scurried about the grounds. Bowyer and his fiancé, Lorra, were mapping plans for their wedding on Easter weekend in the Bahamas. Bowyer’s blond hair was cut short, not a stubble on his chin.
If anyone needed to hit the reset button for a new season, it was Bowyer.
Bowyer, of Emporia, Kan., endured a turbulent 2013. He qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup but went winless for the first time since 2009 and finished seventh in the points standings.
And his season was marred by the controversial caution Bowyer caused at Richmond in the race before the Chase that led to a unprecedented sanctions against Michael Waltrip Racing and cost the organization its longtime sponsorship with NAPA, forcing it to drop Martin Truex Jr. from the team.
“It’s a new year, it’s a new opportunity,” said Bowyer, who will start in the 20th spot in Sunday's Daytona 500. “Nobody remembers that last year, we were in second place for much of the year and were knocking on the door for wins in the last four, five races before the Chase cutoff ...
“We had a terrible Chase. We didn’t run good in the Chase … we didn’t have a great year, but we didn’t have a terrible year. Everybody has bumps in the road. We’ve had our fair share, and we have to bounce back.”
It will be incumbent on Bowyer, 33, to regain his form of 2012, when he won a career-best three races and finished second in the Chase, because he’s in the third and final year of his contract with Michael Waltrip Racing.
His primary sponsor, 5-hour Energy, stood behind Bowyer through the debacle at Richmond, but a few trips to victory lane would go a long way toward keeping his seat in the No. 15 Toyota and maintaining the sponsorship.
“It’s contract time again and I have to perform,” Bowyer said. “We’ve had a great three years. We’ve run well. We’ve had a lot of limelight shined on us. We’ve taken care of a good sponsor. We’ve built a heck of a platform around them.
“This program works. It’s a return on their investment. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. When it makes dollar-sense to these sponsors, a lot of times that’s the determining factor. They can love you … but if it doesn’t make dollars sense for their company they can’t do it.”
“I’ve got a great team, a great crew chief in Brian Pattie … it’s the best team I’ve ever had, the best opportunity I’ve ever had.”
More than anything else, turning the page to 2014 will make a big difference. The specter of Richmond haunted the No. 15 team throughout the Chase.
“Talking to Brian Pattie,” said Fox Sports analyst Larry McReynolds, “and he said what happened in Richmond absolutely zapped them for two-thirds of the Chase.
“It zapped them mentally and physically, and he said, ‘We’re just finally beginning to recover from that.’ I truly believe Clint will be closer back to the form Clint was in when he joined MWR in 2012.”
Bowyer believes he’ll benefit from the reinstatement of MWR general manager Ty Norris, who was suspended in the wake of the Richmond scandal; and the addition of Jeff Burton, a former Richard Childress Racing teammate who will race a partial schedule for the company.
“Ty has always been there,” Bowyer said. “He runs this company. He was the biggest reason that I came over here. He worked hard to sell MWR to me, to my sponsor 5-hour ENERGY … Just because he wasn’t at the race track, every time I go to MWR, I go to Ty’s office and we talk business, we talk sponsorships, we talk what we need to do and then you go down and talk to competition.
“Jeff Burton coming on board is going to be a great asset, somebody I knew before, the best teammate I’ve ever had. He does a lot of testing and is helping me. When we go test, I’m down one path, he’s the other, and he’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, stop, this was fast. This shock or this spring combination … you need to try this,’ and I’ll put it in … ”
Bowyer won five Sprint Cup races and the 2008 Nationwide Series championship as a teammate of Burton’s, so that may bode well for this season.
“Clint needs to wipe out what happened last year at Richmond and get back to being Clint Bowyer,” said NASCAR Hall of Famer and Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip. “He’s absolutely one of the superstars of our sport. He’s a throwback … the kind of guy the sport was built on.
“He just needs to get back to having a year without any controversies or issues, and he’ll be fine.”