Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – If positive energy and the right mindset alone were enough to land Clint Bowyer in the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver would be leading the championship charge.
The good vibes will be helpful, however, as Bowyer has three regular season races remaining to hold on to a playoff position. His positive mindset was on full display Friday following opening practice at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, where the series races Saturday in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). He was playfully trading barbs with reporters, pointing to nostalgic posters on the wall and obviously, full of the kind of enthusiasm he will need as the regular season closes out.
Bowyer, who was ranked as high as ninth place in the season standings following an early May race in his native Kansas, has been plagued by both bad luck and inconsistency in the weeks since.
He’s had only one top 10 in the last nine races and is coming off a season-worst finish of 37th at Michigan in his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
However, and that’s However with a capital H, despite the tough summer months, Bowyer is ranked 16th in the standings – six points up on 17th-place Daniel Suarez and 12 points up on 18th-place Jimmie Johnson. He trails 15th-place Ryan Newman by 10.
The top 16 in the driver standings following the Sept. 8 regular season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will advance to the 10-race Playoffs that begin Sept. 15 at Las Vegas.
“I’ve been feeling good – snake-bit is how I’m feeling,’’ Bowyer said, smiling even as he conceded it’s been a tough few weeks. “I told Jimmie [Johnson] this morning, I was like, ‘Hey, do not have anything happen to you this weekend because every time you do, something happens to me.’
“Every time I get that feeling you’re in a good place, just ride right here, something happens. A flat tire in Watkins [Glen] leading up to last weekend. Things were going good and we were gonna put probably a 30-pad on what we needed to. I mean, literally just trying to get to the end of the thing and survive, and couldn’t. So snake-bit, I’m definitely feeling that.’’
If a fond feeling for a venue can make even a subtle difference, then Bowyer should feel good about his chances at Bristol. He has never won a Cup race on the famous half-mile high-banks, but was runner-up in 2017. He led 120 laps and finished sixth in this night race last year and led 24 laps and finished seventh in the Bristol spring race earlier this season. He won an Xfinity Series race at Bristol in 2008.
Beyond his performance – an impressive 14 top-10 and seven top-five finishes in 27 starts at the track – Bowyer just likes the facility and the atmosphere.
“Anybody that hates this place shouldn’t be in racing because this is the mecca of all race tracks,’’ Bowyer said. “This is the granddaddy of them all. There’s no question.
“A fan, if they want to be a fan of this sport, they need to learn short track racing and they need to learn of Bristol Motor Speedway,’’ Bowyer continued. “There’s not a fan, a family member, a friend, anybody that I know that I wouldn’t point in the direction of Bristol Motor Speedway, so as a racer on the track, it’s no different.’’
And for the challenges of what is unfailingly a busy, action-packed night of racing, Bowyer says that’s exactly the draw for him. Bristol provides the sort of “old school, hard knocks” competition that attracted him to the stock car racing.
“Just the unknown, being able to go for it, being able to not worry about an aero push or horsepower deficit or whatever the case may be – get ahold of the steering wheel, get ahold of the gas pedal and make something happen and this is a track where you can do that.’’
It certainly presents a good opportunity – his best statistically speaking of the remaining three regular season venues – to make his move and solidify a playoff spot, his second in as many years. He has turned in good efforts at upcoming playoff venues – including a season-best runner-up at Texas Motor Speedway where he dueled with race winner Denny Hamlin in the closing laps and a third place run at Richmond.
“It sucks to be frustrated,’’ Bowyer said, again managing a smile. “We’ve had really good runs this year. I mean if you look back at Richmond, I wish I’d have moved Denny and won the race and the rest would have been history. We wouldn’t even be talking about this, but I think I still would have been sitting here even with a win, frustrated.
“Even if you had that win and you were in the Playoffs and everything else, it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to just go to the Playoffs. I remember the [Kansas City] Chiefs, they go to the Playoffs, and in the first round they’re out. That sucked.
“I want to be in it to the end and win a championship. You go to the Playoffs to win a championship. You don’t go to the Playoffs just to get your picture taken with the Playoff group. It’s a business. There’s money on the line. There’s prestige on the line. There’s trophies on the line and a big damn trophy at the end of it with a huge check. That is what you go to the Playoffs for, so finishing to our capabilities, yes, when I say we’re not a 16th-place team, we’re not. We’ve shown our capabilities.
“We run in the top five, but the reality is we are right now and it’s because of lack of finishes, DNFs and things like that and not finishing to our capabilities and that’s what we’ve got to get ironed out and we’ve got three races to do it.’’