|In the days before Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams travelled to Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway for last weekend’s road race, television commentator Jeff Burton came up with an interesting take during a debate about which four drivers will comprise the Championship 4 at Miami in November.
Not surprisingly, most of the expert panel predicted Stewart-Haas Racing’s (SHR) Kevin Harvick, along with Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., will make up three of the four drivers who will battle for the championship in the season finale. The trio has won 12 of the 16 races in the 2018 season.
But the surprise of the debate came when Burton, himself a 21-time Cup Series race winner, predicted the fourth driver in the title battle.
“Whose that guy? I think it’s Clint Bowyer,” Burton said on NBC Sports. “I think about consistency. He isn’t a guy who might win six races a year, but he is always going to grind out finishes. Consistency is what he is good at. I think you are also seeing, at this point in his career, Bowyer adding a little more speed. He’s happy with his team and he and his crew chief get along. He’s having fun, enjoying what he is doing, and I think he is going to be that fourth guy.”
For his part, Bowyer isn’t ready to say he and his team are a lock for the Championship 4, but he did say the combination of SHR, Ford and Roush Yates Engines puts the No. 14 team in contention.
“It is a lethal package right now,” he said. “This is a humbling sport and I have been all over the place with it – high, low and everywhere in between. It just makes you appreciate the ride you are on right now and the group that I am around. We are hitting on all eight cylinders and getting the most out of our weekends and starting to get the consistency back that we were kind of lacking last year. The capability is there within the team. It is a team effort.”
Burton’s comments stirred debate on social media but, looking at Bowyer’s career record, is it really a surprise to include him in predictions for the final four playoff drivers?
Before arriving at SHR in 2017, Bowyer had finished in the top-five in the championship four times for two different organizations. In 2007, he finished third in the points driving for Richard Childress Racing and, in 2012, he finished second in the points driving for Michael Waltrip Racing. Before arriving in the Cup Series, Bowyer won an Xfinity Series title in 2008.
It was easy to sleep on Bowyer in recent years when he drove for a team going out of business and then with a small team without a history of success. Bowyer arrived at SHR in 2017 replacing three-time-champion Tony Stewart. Bowyer and his new team turned in a pretty solid year, posting the 11th-best average finish but couldn’t capture that elusive victory and fell just one spot short of making the playoffs.
Fast forward to 2018 and the No. 14 team has earned victories at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. It has posted five top-five finishes and sits sixth in the points despite accidents caused by other drivers at Talladega and Kansas that prevented good finishes.
Last weekend in Sonoma, Bowyer started 19th and drove as high as second before finishing third on the first of three road courses the Cup Series will see in 2018. With all four SHR drivers in the top eight, Sunday was the best collective finish for the organization since its inception in 2009.
There’s a lot of racing remaining before the playoffs and it begins this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois, where Bowyer has earned seven top-10 finishes in 12 starts. His No. 14 Ford will carry the familiar black-and-yellow Wix paint scheme for the only time in 2018.
Sunday marks race 17 of 36 and, with only nine races remaining before the 2018 playoffs begin, it’s time to see whether Burton was right and Bowyer joins the Championship 4 in Miami.
|CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Wix Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing:|
|What are your thoughts on Chicagoland Speedway?
“Chicago has always been a cool racetrack. It is a sister track to my home track in Kansas and that fan base up there is that Midwestern fan base I feel most comfortable with, and I enjoy going to that racetrack and interacting with them in the infield and everything else. Again, we are fortunate to be able to race all over the country and see different people in different ways of life.”
What will it take to be a championship contender?
“To be able to compete at that level, you have to be able to unload week in, week out with cars capable of getting the job done. Most of that is the work that’s put in before the week even starts. It’s working months ahead preparing that car for any given weekend. Then it’s the communication leading into the race. Then it’s communication through Friday, through qualifying, through Saturday’s practice sessions, and collectively putting that all together for Sunday. You have to knock on that door week in and week out. You have to build that notebook so you can start the playoffs and run in the top-five every single week. That will put you at the end.”
Are you and the No. 14 at that level?
“We’re starting to do that. We’re starting that notebook that we all talk about. It’s finally starting to resonate to where you can look at it. Like, I can go back and look at last year. All right, I remember that. We’re not going to do that. We’ll be better there. We have to learn from that mistake, so on and so forth. Those are the things we’re starting to pick up on.”
Are you optimistic?
“We are getting better at the No. 14. The thing I love the most about the season is we start going back to these races for the second time in the playoffs. That notebook is even bigger for us because our cars have been unloading fast. Now, it’s just fine-tuning. It’s not that massive, overall change of setups you have to do going into one of those playoff races.”