NASCAR’s annual West Coast swing, which wraps up Sunday with the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., is always a grueling three-week stretch for Monster Energy Cup Series teams.
But it’s potentially a blessing in disguise for Clint Bowyer’s new Stewart-Haas Racing-owned operation.
Bowyer, 37, slipped into Tony Stewart’s old ride, the No. 14 Mobil 1/Haas Automation Ford, after a year in the NASCAR equivalent of Siberia.
The extended West Coast stay, racing on consecutive weekends at half of the six Monster Energy Cup Series tracks located west of the Mississippi, provides a chance for Bowyer’s new team to jell.
He’s close friends with fellow Stewart-Haas drivers Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, along with many members of their crews, but he’s still getting familiar with his own team.
“My team on the 14 (car) are the guys that I don’t know, but those are the guys that I need to know the best,” Bowyer said. “This is a good opportunity out West to spend a lot of time with those guys and get this communication down, so we can get into the summer months and rock ’n’ roll.”
The early returns are encouraging.
“It’s neat and fun to have teammates the way I do, two champions of the sport (Busch and Harvick) to lean on and go through practice sessions and everything else,” Bowyer said. “It’s been a breath of fresh air to have those teammates.”
After starting inside the top 20 just once last season with HScott Motorsports as he awaited Stewart’s retirement, Bowyer will make his fourth start in five races from 17th position or better Sunday.
“Qualifying has never been something that’s been my heavy strong suit,” Bowyer said. “We’re qualifying in that top 15 pretty consistently, but we’ve got to improve on that and need more stage points.”
Bowyer, a native of Emporia, Kan., has finished 13th or better in three of four races this season — which isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but it’s a lot better than last season, when he only finished that high four times during a 36-race season.
“It’s been an OK start to the year,” Bowyer said. “Obviously, you always want to be better. It’s been solid, but we’ve got to get into the top 10. This is a top-10 company, organization and race team. Anything less than that needs improvement.”
There’s still a learning curve with Bowyer and new crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, who are getting to know each other’s personalities and how to foster synergy in maximizing the car and weekly race results.
“Until I figure ‘Buga’ and he figures me out, I’m trying to be pretty even-keeled,” Bowyer said. “I’ve got a short wick. I might fire up pretty good, but I flame out pretty fast. He’s got to learn that.”
The important thing is that they are learning together and Bowyer is hopeful that a breakthrough on the track isn’t far off.
“I think we’ll win somewhere,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to Martinsville (Va.) next weekend. I think we could win here. If we can get up there, get good track position, get some clean air, make some good adjustments on our car, we can win here. This has been one of my better tracks over the years.”