by Ryan Isley
If NASCAR was to make its own version of the 2001 film Bubble Boy, the lead actor would be Clint Bowyer, not Jake Gyllenhaal.
With just six races remaining before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series sets the Chase for the Sprint Cup field, Bowyer is in a transfer spot. For now. But he is on a very thin bubble rolling around in a field of thumbtacks. And seeing as how Bowyer hasn’t found victory lane since 2012, the most logical chance for him to make the Chase would be on points.
Bowyer currently sits 15th in the points standings with 538 points, making him the last driver into the Chase on points without a win as of now, sitting 30 points ahead of 17th-place Aric Almirola who has 508 points. Carl Edwards is between Bowyer and Almirola, but has a win so would not need to get in on points. Just as importantly, Bowyer trails Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard by 15 points, Ryan Newman by 25 points and Jeff Gordon by 37 points. While holding off Almirola is important, it would more than likely be a moot point if Bowyer either doesn’t win a race or catch at least one of the drivers (more likely two or more) if the six drivers remain winless.
The reason it would be so important for Bowyer to get off that final transfer spot that is based on points is because Kyle Busch is lurking, finding himself just 23 points behind Justin Allgaier for the 30th spot in the standings. Once Busch gets into the top-30, his three wins will kick in and he will be into the Chase. Once Busch is eligible for the Chase, it takes away one more spot in the Chase for a driver without a win.
Making things possibly more difficult on the track for Bowyer should he not go to victory lane in the next six races is that there are drivers below him in the standings who could jump over him with a win and put themselves into the Chase, including AJ Allmendinger, whose win last year came at next week’s track – Watkins Glen. Two drivers who are just ahead of Bowyer – Kahne and Gordon – also won their first race of the season in 2014 in this final stretch before the Chase. However, Kahne’s win came at Atlanta which is now the second race of the season. If they would win those races again this season, they would put themselves in the Chase and leave Bowyer needing to get in on points.
Last year wasn’t an exception for drivers winning their first race of the season in the last six races before the Chase. One trend that doesn’t play into Bowyer’s favor is that in each of the last six seasons, at least one driver has won his first race of the season in the final six races before the beginning of the Chase. If that would happen this season, Bowyer would have to hope that winner is Jamie McMurray, who is ninth in the standings and wouldn’t damage Bowyer’s Chase chances with a win.
A big hurdle for Bowyer is going to be that he is not going to tracks at which he has shown much success for the most part. None of his eight career wins have come at the next five tracks (Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol and Darlington) and only nine of his top 10s have come at those five tracks. Bowyer’s best average finish at the next five tracks is at Michigan, where he averages a finish of 14.3, only his 10th-best track.
If Bowyer can’t get a win or make up enough points to put himself in the Chase in those five races, his last chance might just be his best. Two of Bowyer’s career wins have come at Richmond, where he owns an average finish of 11.9 in 19 races, the third-best of any track in his career. Richmond was also the site of one of Bowyer’s seven top-10s in 20 races this season, as he finished ninth at the track back in April.
As if making the Chase wasn’t going to be stressful enough for Bowyer, it was announced this week that Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) co-owner Rob Kauffman has purchased an ownership stake in Chip Ganassi Racing, which leaves lingering questions around the MWR camp. MWR, who currently fields the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams of Bowyer and David Ragan, could be left out in the cold as they don’t have a deal with a car manufacturer once its Toyota deal ends after this season and also doesn’t have a sponsor on board for Ragan’s No.55 for next season and beyond.
Bowyer is under contract at MWR through the 2017 season after signing an extension last May, but if MWR can’t field a team without Kauffman’s funding, it would stand to reason that the No.15 team of Bowyer (and primary sponsor 5-Hour Energy, who is also signed long-term) could move over to Ganassi and become a third car in the Ganassi stable along with drivers Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray.
No matter what happens with the two teams, it comes at a bad time for the drivers. Now instead of just worrying about what they are doing behind the wheel and controlling what they can control, they are going to be hit with questions about their futures, most of which they will not be able to answer. Something like that could be the difference in a guy like Bowyer making the Chase or just missing out, which would be a disappointment that it had to happen when it did.
Of course, this could be just the motivation Bowyer needed to get himself into victory lane and earn that spot in the Chase. If he can overcome all of the obstacles laid in front of him and still get into the Chase, it might even clear up his future plans.
Either way, it’s going to be a tough job to keep his bubble from popping.