By Ryan Isley
A hunting trip and a threat. That’s how Clint Bowyer went from missing the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs to winning two races already in 2018.
After a season in which Bowyer joined Stewart-Haas Racing and the team didn’t perform the way it had hoped, the driver took crew chief Mike Bugarewicz on a hunting trip to Texas.
“We went on that hunt and I told him ‘hey man, we’re either going to figure this out or one of us is getting shot down here,’” Bowyer said. “We ended up having a blast and really got to know one another on a different level. Once we got to Daytona, it was go, cat, go.”
That was a completely different attitude than the one Bowyer had at the end of a tumultuous 2017 season. In his initial season at SHR and with Bugarewicz, the team finished with zero wins and just six top-5s. The lack of success had Bowyer thinking of making a change for 2018. But that hunting trip is what changed Bowyer’s mind.
“It’s no secret that we fought a lot last year and to be honest, it was probably as close as I have ever been to wanting to make a crew chief change and do something different,” Bowyer said. “Both of us had a conversation and made a pact that we were going to stick together and we knew the capabilities of one another and our race team.”
Coming into a new team with a new crew chief and a new manufacturer stacked the deck against Bowyer and the No. 14 team in 2017. Despite everything being new, Bowyer was looking at it in a different prism.
“I came in the door full of enthusiasm and excitement,” Bowyer said. “This was my meal ticket; this was the opportunity I had been waiting on for a long time.”
But like in any sport, talent will only take a team so far. When it comes right down to it, team chemistry is as big of a factor as any. That was something that the No. 14 team didn’t have right out of the gate.
“I think we were over anxious,” Bowyer said. “What we didn’t do a very good job of was getting to know one another. We were so excited to get to the racetrack and get going because we knew that it was going to be a deadly combination. We never took the time to honestly and truly know each other and that’s important.”
The most important part of team chemistry is that between a driver and his crew chief, and Bowyer and Bugarewicz just didn’t have it. But having a year to figure it out has helped the team – and the driver – immensely.
“The difference this year is having last year under our belt as a team,” Bowyer said. “When I am in the car and saying one thing or another, he needs to be able to tell the magnitude of the situation by my demeanor and how I said it.”
One issue that Bowyer pointed to was that he was never in the same car on a week-to-week basis, which is something he has not done in his career. He likes things to be consistent but with a new team and a new car, that just wasn’t possible last year.
But the team has used what it learned last season and has shown great improvement this year. Bowyer took the checkered flag at Martinsville in the sixth race of the season and set off a party that lasted into the off week. And then he found victory lane again in Michigan just a few weeks ago.
“Once we got all of the growing pains behind us, our car has gotten better and our communication and confidence within our team has been better,” Bowyer said.
That’s not to say that Bowyer didn’t enjoy the 2017 season. After all, it’s Clint Bowyer. He likes to have fun.
“I had a lot of fun last year and we had a lot of good runs,” Bowyer said. “Hell, we finished second three times. But the problem was we would back it up with a bad run and we would string two or three in a row of bad runs. We were all over the place.”
This season, Bowyer has been more consistent and has avoided the runs of bad finishes that plagued the team last season. His average finish of 10.6 is nearly five full spots better than last year’s 15.5.
“To be consistently chasing those stage points week in and week out and finishing up front, showing up at the pay window, that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Bowyer said. “That’s what they pay you to do and that’s what we are doing right now.”
And all it took for the N0. 14 team to turn the corner was to get a year under their belts.
Well that, and the threat of being shot.