RICHMOND, Va. — Clint Bowyer’s season started with a chance to win the Daytona 500. A late-race wreck ended his opportunity, and set the tone for a miserable opening month.
The low point came after a blown engine at Bristol dropped Bowyer to 24th in the Sprint Cup standings, and there were few indications that his Richard Childress Racing team could climb out of the hole.
Until they did.
Bowyer goes into Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway as the hottest driver in the series. Four consecutive top-10s, including back-to-back second-place finishes, has vaulted him all the way up to 10th in the standings.
“A month ago I was worried, very much so,” Bowyer said. “But at the end of the day, the reality was it was still way early in the season, still is even today. … But it feels good to be able to get on a little bit of a roll here, and hopefully we can continue to ride that wave.”
Next up comes Richmond, one of Bowyer’s better tracks. He has five top-10s in 10 career starts, and his victory in 2008 was one of the more memorable wins of his entire racing career.
Denny Hamlin led 381 of the first 382 laps until a tire issue allowed Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to sail past him for the lead with 17 remaining. Caution eventually was called for Hamlin, setting up a five-lap sprint to the finish with Earnhardt, Busch and Bowyer holding the first three spots.
Busch then made contact with Earnhardt’s car, sending Earnhardt spinning into the wall — and opening a hole for Bowyer to slide past and steal the victory.
“That was win was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in Victory Lane because it was a surprise,” Bowyer said. “I knew we had a fast car, and we put ourselves up there and put ourselves in position and the right circumstances played out and we were able to win the race. You couldn’t help but laugh about it. Just an incredible feeling, an incredible win for us.”
Bowyer is hoping he won’t need late-race fireworks to win Saturday night.
He’s running well enough to win races and lost to Jimmie Johnson two weeks ago at Talladega Superspeedway by .002 of a second — tying the closest finish in Cup history since implementation of electronic scoring in 1993.
But wins don’t come easy — Bowyer has made four trips to Victory Lane in his Cup career.
“We’ve got to win races,” he said. “I’ve been saying that all the time, and it’s time for myself and our race team to prove ourselves this year, and hopefully we can win some more.”
They’ve gotten closer the past month because of changes made after the No. 33 Chevrolet was not running nearly as well as teammates Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard. Bowyer crew chief Shane Wilson began to use setups closer to Harvick’s and Menard’s, resulting in a seventh-place finish at California, ninth at Martinsville — where Bowyer led 91 laps and Harvick won — and then second-place finishes at Texas and Talladega.
“(I’m) very proud of our race team to get things turned around,” Bowyer said. “The first four races were just terrible, and we dug in deep and had a decent run at Martinsville and just kind of continued to build on that and get that ball rolling, get the monkey off your back.”
Harvick said he never doubted the No. 33 team would snap its slump.
“It was good to see what they were doing, they could change the direction and turn it around instantly,” Harvick said. “They’re running like they have in the past and the last four weeks have been really good.”
The past month has given Bowyer reasons not to look too far outside RCR during his current contract negotiations. He’s in the final year of his deal with Childress, but running well often is enough to keep drivers from straying.
“I’ve talked to Richard a couple of times, and hopefully we’re getting close on that,” Bowyer said. “I’ve just been having fun at the race track, focusing on what I can do. I haven’t won, but we’ve been running well. The last four races have been really solid for us. If you go have fun at the race track then I feel like the rest will come.
“We’ve been doing that and doing a good job at that, and hopefully we can get our sponsors locked in and get everything put in place and not have to worry about it.”