Clint Bowyer had long prepared to enjoy this season, knowing the opportunity waiting for him to be successful again in the NASCAR Cup Series.
That certainly helped the Emporia, Kan., native get through the worst season in his career with a now-shuttered team.
“Last year is just last year. I think I was prepared to enjoy this year even last year,” said Bowyer, now driving the No. 14 Stewart-Haas car in the former seat of one of the team’s owners.
“This is an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often, whether it was my first opportunity in this sport or my last.”
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Bowyer will start third Sunday in Texas. His best qualifying effort since succeeding three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart comes after consecutive finishes in the top seven at Fontana and Martinsville. Bowyer is eighth in season points through six Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races.
Last year with HScott Motorsports on a stopgap deal to keep racing, Bowyer was 27th in points and without a top-five finish. That was by far the worst of 11 full Cup seasons for the driver who began his career with Richard Childress Racing (2005-11) and then went to Michael Waltrip Racing (2012-15).
Now he’s teammates with former Cup champions Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, and popular driver Danica Patrick.
“You don’t put enough emphasis on the impact a good teammate can have on you. Drivers capable of winning races and championships,” Bowyer said.
“I have two championship-winning drivers as teammates. Danica, everything she brings for our entire sport, let alone the company. This is the opportunity you are giddy about no matter where you are at in your career.”
Harvick is the polesitter at the 1 1/2 -mile Texas track that earlier this year was completely repaved and reconfigured in Turns 1 and 2.
Ford drivers took the top five spots in qualifying, with Ryan Blaney set to start on the front row with Harvick. Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski round out the top five behind Bowyer.
Bowyer, the kind of big personality that is good for NASCAR, is now 37. His hasn’t won since three victories in 2012, when he was the season runner-up to Brad Keselowski.
“It’s definitely good to see him back,” said Martin Truex Jr., his former MWR teammate. “I know what it’s like to have those tough years and try to battle through it. People kind of write you off, think you forget how to drive. It’s cool to see him competitive again. … I’m sure it’s not the last we see of old Bowyer this year.”
Mike Bugarewicz, a young no-nonsense guy who was Stewart’s crew chief last season, is now in that same role with Bowyer.
Stewart said that is the right crew chief for Bowyer, who is a lot like the former Cup champion in temperament and in how he expresses himself.
“I told (Bugarewicz), when he worked with me, if I start getting overboard on emotion, I said just let me vent, and tell me to get focused again and drive the car,” Stewart said. “And that’s what he’s kind of doing with Clint, too. And it seems to work for him as well.”
Bowyer said the hardest thing for him is trying to get a laugh out of his crew chief, or at least get some kind of a rise out of him.
While Bowyer describes them as “definitely polar opposites” personality-wise, he said it has been a long time since he had a crew chief as dedicated as Bugarewicz.
After talking so much in the offseason about how much he was looking forward to this season and getting started with Stewart-Haas, Bowyer said so far it has been everything he could have hoped for.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I knew it would be a positive move.”
O’Reilly Auto Parts 500
12:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox (Channel 4)