NASCAR’s Clint Bowyer stepped on the yoga mat, clasped his hands together, closed his eyes and tried to forget all of his troubles.
It wasn’t easy.
Bowyer, of Emporia, Kan., was at the epicenter of one the biggest controversies in the history of the sport when NASCAR cited his car owner, Michael Waltrip Racing, for “manipulating” the finish of the Sprint Cup race last month at Richmond, Va..
It’s been hard for Bowyer to find a moment of peace ever since.
Last week, he and fellow driver Ryan Newman spent four days elk hunting in the wilds of Wyoming. On Saturday, Bowyer, in an appearance on behalf of his sponsor, 5-hour Energy drink, helped lead a yoga class on the infield at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
“Relaaax … ” instructor Jessica Coyne intoned as Bowyer got comfortable on the mat.
“Relaxation is a way to forget about everything that’s going on that stresses you,” she said. “ Instead of thinking about things that are happening and are going to happen, it’s about focusing inward.”
It was good advice for Bowyer, who has spent the better part of the last three weeks deflecting criticism and denying accusations that he intentionally spun out in the closing laps at Richmond in order to create a caution and deny Newman, of all people, a win and enable Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
NASCAR came down hard on the Waltrip team for that and other actions at the end of the race designed at keeping Jeff Gordon from qualifying for the Chase. NASCAR fined Waltrip $300,000, disqualified Truex from the Chase and put Newman and Jeff Gordon back in the Chase field. Waltrip Racing general manager Ty Norris was suspended indefinitely, and Bowyer was docked 50 precious points, which dropped him to the 10th seed in the Chase, a near impossible position from which to recover.
“Clint did not spin on purpose and I stand behind him,” a contrite Waltrip said. “We made a mistake in the heat of battle.”
The stress has taken its toll on Bowyer, who comes to his home track of Kansas Speedway for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 a distant eighth in the Chase.
“Anytime somebody is not happy or proud of you, you’re always bothered by it,” Bowyer said. “Nonetheless, we got through it and are looking forward. The problem is we’re in the Chase. It’s Chase time. I’m way more worried about that than the past three weeks.”
Bowyer understands why so much vitriol has been directed at him, but he believes his reputation has not been tarnished.
“It depends on whose fan you are,” Bowyer said. “If you’re a Jeff Gordon fan, yeah, you’re probably (ticked) at me. But it’s racing. I’m sure when Jeff Gordon crashed me (at Phoenix last year), I’m sure some of his fans were questioning him and his thought process.
“It’s part of sports. You’re not always going to make everybody happy. If you tried to make everybody in this sport happy, you’d die a miserable man. This is not an uncommon thing to have something crazy come up that people didn’t like.”
Those in Bowyer’s camp maintain Norris and Waltrip put him in a difficult spot.
“He was, but he wasn’t,” said former NASCAR crew chief and Fox analyst Larry McReynolds. “He is the only one who had that steering wheel and that brake pedal and that gas pedal. It doesn’t matter who was in his ear, he knew what was right and what was wrong.
“I’ve heard all the talk, if your boss tells you to do something, you have to do it. No you don’t. You don’t do stupid stuff. He made a mistake. I bet you no one knows it more than Clint does.”
Hall of Fame driver and three-time Sprint Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, older brother of Michael Waltrip, said Waltrip Racing’s tactics at Richmond are as old as NASCAR. He compared NASCAR’s disciplining the Waltrip team in the way the NFL has enforced rules on concussion-causing hits during the past few years
“The NFL had problems with concussions, and they realized it and had to make some serious rules,” said Waltrip, an analyst for NASCAR on Fox. “They’ve had to hand out some big fines and suspensions for things guys have done their whole career. A guy has to learn how to play the game differently … now you can’t hit certain ways … so it changes the game.
“The (league) draws a line in the sand and says, ‘Look, we may have done this in the past, but from this day forward, this is the way it’s going to be. We were doing it the best we knew how, but at some point, you say we were doing it wrong, and we have to change.’ ”
With Richmond being the final race before the Chase, and so much at stake, Waltrip Racing couldn’t get away with pushing the envelope.
“It was the moment,” Darrell Waltrip said. “It was when it was, it was where it was, and how it all came down. It was a perfect storm and brought attention to something that we’ve been doing for a long time, but we’re not going to do it that way anymore, Sometimes, somebody is going to get caught up in the new way. Out of bad situations — and that was a bad situation — hopefully good things come out of bad situations.”
The fallout continued when NAPA, Michael Waltrip Racing’s longtime sponsor of the No. 55 Toyota, withdrew its $16 million sponsorship, leaving Truex without a ride for the 2014 season.
Bowyer’s fears were allayed when 5-hour Energy announced last Friday that it would honor its commitment to the No. 15 Toyota for the final year of its contract in 2014.
Now, Bowyer, who finished second in the Chase in 2012, hopes to win his first race of the season and move up as far as he can in the standings. He was second and third for most of the year before the points were reset for the Chase.
“I thought when we hit this Chase, we were going to be a contender,” said Bowyer, who finished 10th last week at Dover. “Given the last three weeks, we’re not. We’re just 12 points out of fourth. Obviously those first three cars are quite a ways out, but with seven races left, that’s a lot of racing.
“We’ve got to get back to doing what we were doing. We’ve hurt ourselves. We’ve made some bad decisions that cost us points where I should have zigged instead of zagged. It’s all about making good decisions. Everybody has fast race cars, everybody is capable of doing a good job behind the wheel … you’ve got to make better decisions than the next guy, and that’s what makes the difference.”
Bowyer completed his yoga session lying on his mat, in what Coyne called the “corpse position.” He didn’t seem to be listening to Coyne until she chanted an ancient Hindu phrase, “Ujiyii pranayama.”
It means “victory.”
Bowyer’s head shot up from the mat.
“Now,” he said, “you’ve got my attention.”