Clint Bowyer climbed from his new Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Mobil 1 Ford Fusion after Thursday’s second Can-Am Duel at Daytona International Speedway with a wide grin.
Excitement oozed from Bowyer — an Emporia, Kan., native — as freely as sweat after the 60-lap race.
“(Dang), this is fun again,” a jubilant Bowyer shouted. “Man, what a rocket ship.”
He finished second in the race, which sets the field for the Daytona 500, and will start sixth in the Great America Race at 1 p.m. Sunday on Fox.
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It’s an unfamiliar feeling after spending last season in the NASCAR equivalent of Siberia.
When Michael Waltrip Racing shut down after the 2015 season, Bowyer spent last season with HScott Motorsports, a small operation that no longer fielded a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team.
Bowyer only started better than 23rd once during a 36-race season.
“I hate talking about last year,” Bowyer said. “I really do. … The last year-and-a-half has been miserable.”
Bowyer, whose last checkered flag came in October 2012 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, finished in the top 10 of the final Sprint Cup standings five times from 2007-13.
He was a rising star in the racing world, claiming the Xfinity Series title in 2008 while earning a reputation for hard-nosed racing and unvarnished opinions that endeared him to NASCAR fans.
Bowyer’s career peaked in 2012 when he posted a career-best runner-up finish in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing — collecting career-highs with three wins, 10 top-five finishes and 23 top-10s along the way.
During the next season, Bowyer again claimed 10 top-five finishes, but a collusion scandal designed to manipulate qualifying for the 2013 playoffs caused sponsorship dollars to dry up and eventually led to Michael Waltrip Racing’s collapse less than two years later.
It also left Bowyer without a full-time ride.
He signed with Stewart-Haas to take over upon three-time Cup champion and co-owner Tony Stewart’s retirement after the 2016 season, but that also meant a trying season with an underfunded and uncompetitive team last season with HScott Motorsports.
Bowyer finished 33rd in last season’s Daytona 500 and 35th a week later at Atlanta.
Things never really got better. He cracked the top 10 three teams in the next 15 races but never finished better than 17th in the final 19 races of 2016.
“Obviously, you get to that point that you realize it is what it is and it’s not going to get any better,” Bowyer said. “You make the best of it. You still go out, get in it every weekend and try to do the best you can. The hardest part is when you change your goals from winning and being the best team there to just doing the best you can. That’s the hardest thing as a racecar driver.”
That’s no longer an issue for a grateful Bowyer, who finished fourth during qualifying Tuesday to set the front row for the Daytona 500.
He briefly had the fastest practice lap in threatening to win a pole for the first time since 2007.
“Just being competitive and being in the conversation for the best was huge,” Bowyer said. “It was refreshing and what I’ve been waiting on — this opportunity, this ride, this group, this organization and everything. That’s what the expectations are with this team, and they delivered right off the bat in the first qualifying session at Daytona.”
Bowyer’s move to Stewart-Haas was complicated by a manufacturer switch from Chevrolet to Ford, which included building all-new chassis and using motors from Roush Yates Engines.
Bowyer is also building from scratch with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, who debuted as a Cup series crew chief for Stewart’s final season, but Bowyer had lauded the chemistry and communication that’s already been built.
“To get here and be fast right off the truck, have the speed that you’ve longed for the last year or so, I’m not nervous or anything more than ready,” Bowyer. “I can’t wait to get the year started, and hopefully it starts with a big win down in Daytona. … This is the one opportunity a year you have to win the most prestigious race we have in the sport. It’s go, cat, go. All focus is on that and nothing else.”
Stewart is a sure-fire Hall of Fame driver, but Bowyer doesn’t feel any pressure sliding into his seat. Part of it is the friendship he shares with his boss, but it’s also just such a relief for Bowyer to be with a capable team again.
“After the year I had, no, I don’t feel pressure,” Bowyer said. “I’m so excited for an opportunity with people who are all-in to go out and win these races and to be in equipment capable of winning races. There’s pressure in anything in life, but more so I’m excited for the opportunity, because it’s just that — it’s a hell of an opportunity. … I want to get back to running well and being a name again that you hear every weekend.”
Bowyer feels a certain sense of legacy about his own career, especially when he thinks about how he’d like his 2-year-old son Cash to remember him.
Certainly, it’s not as the driver who finished 27th overall with an average start of 31st and average finish of 24th last season.
“That isn’t how I want my kid to remember me,” Bowyer said. “He’s 2 1/2 years old now, and I want to be able for him to see me in Victory Lane and for him to be in Victory Lane. When it’s all said and done, you look over when you’re 50-some years old that there’s a picture of your whole family in Victory Lane. That’s what I race for.”