Michael Waltrip Racing driver expects to avoid sophomore slump
CONCORD, N.C. -- On the morning after his victory last fall at Charlotte, he woke up with a driveshaft in his bed. After he was wrecked by Jeff Gordon a few weeks later at Phoenix, he sprinted though the garage area itching for a fight. So leave it to Clint Bowyer to scoff at the notion that the runner-up funk that’s engulfed a few of his predecessors will apply to him.
“Everybody keeps warning me about this second-place hangover,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve had a lot of hangovers. You can fight through them. I’m ready for it.”
That’s no surprise coming from Bowyer, as live a wire as there is in the Sprint Cup Series and a driver whose talent is sometimes eclipsed by the fury of activity that always surrounds him. That was certainly the case during the Michael Waltrip Racing portion of the NASCAR Sprint Media tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, when Bowyer held court on a variety of topics -- a few of them actually pertaining to the fact that he almost won the championship last year.
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Indeed, Bowyer surged to a surprise second in final points last season, taking advantage of Jimmie Johnson’s late-season unravelling to finish 39 points behind champion Brad Keselowski. At the time, it was so under the radar, not even he was aware of it. Exiting the race car after the finale at Homestead, he was told he had finished second -- which he thought referred to the race, where he trailed only the winner Gordon.
“I was like, ‘I saw that, great point there,’” Bowyer recalled. “And he said, ‘No, in the points.’ I was like, 'What?'”
To be sure, some others who watched the Keselowski-Johnson endgame unfold were wondering the same thing. But that’s Bowyer, a wide-open former dirt track racer whose spotter and crew chief often communicate on a separate radio channel to ensure their easily-distracted driver doesn’t lose focus. His car owner once referred to him as “Mr. ADD.”
No question, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards each fell into a malaise after coming up just short of the title. But there’s perhaps no competitor better suited to avoid dwelling on such a thing, precisely because Bowyer doesn’t dwell on anything for very long.
“Here’s the thing -- it’s either going to happen, or it’s not. I guess if it does happen, what are you going to do about it? You’re going to work hard to try to correct it, no different than they did,” he said, referring to the last two drivers to finish second in the championship race.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s going to happen. I’m going to tell you why I don’t think it’s going to happen, and that’s … just being able to continually improve (like we did) all the way to Homestead last year. Those are the things that I see. There’s still room to improve. We’ve improved through the offseason from what we had, through preparation for those tests, the communication at the tests, unloading with a fast car. It seems like each of those guys had a piece of the puzzle gone, like they’d lost a guy or something like that. We were able to keep everybody intact, and aim to do so.”
Besides, the 33-year-old Kansan has more entertaining subjects to talk about, like food, friends and fitness training (or lack thereof). Mark Martin, the ageless wonder who once authored a book called “Strength Training for Performance Driving,” is helping MWR design its new gym.
“We’re looking forward to getting our new place built so we can watch you lift stuff,” Waltrip ribbed Martin before the media tour crowd.
How much will Bowyer use it?
“Probably never,” he said. “Weights are heavy. (Martin) told me he started working out like in his 40s. I’ve got some time to go yet. Last I noticed, that steering wheel is not near as heavy as those weights are. When that happens, I guess I’ll go to lifting weights.”
Besides, Bowyer has other things to do -- like cook, which he did Monday night. “Yeah, surprised me, too,” he said. The menu consisted of steak and macaroni and cheese. “Ask Mark Martin if he was eating steak and macaroni and cheese last night,” Bowyer said of his teammate, who maintains a strict diet to complement his fitness regimen. “We did have asparagus. I didn’t cook that. That’s way too healthy for me.”
Bowyer handled steak sent to him by friend Jimmy John Liataud -- yes, he of the sandwich shop of the same name -- who advised the driver to sear it in a cast iron pan and cook it in the oven on very high heat.
“Now, I’m from Kansas,” Bowyer said. “We’re pretty simple folk. We grill our meat.” He even double-checked the recipe with another friend -- this one in the cattle business, who demanded to know why he’d ever cook a steak like that.
But Bowyer did it anyway, in the process showing off a little adaptability, which will be on display once again this weekend when he competes in the Rolex 24 at Daytona Grand-Am race.
“It’s a long time, 24 hours,” he conceded. “I have enough trouble concentrating for three and a half hours.”
Bowyer said it will be his only appearance in sports cars, and he’s doing this race because team co-owner Rob Kauffman -- who will be a co-driver along with Waltrip, Bowyer and Rui Aguas -- requested it.
“Rob does so much for us,” Bowyer said of Kauffman, who owns an investment firm. “It’s like this -- if Rob asks you anything, the answer is usually yes. I don’t care what’s in front of it, or what you’re doing.”
Which is why Bowyer will find himself behind the wheel of a Ferrari 458 in the GT class this weekend -- that is, if he can keep out of the way of faster cars. “There’s no rules of the road, that’s the biggest problem,” he said. “… They just say, kind of hold your line and they’ll figure it out. I don’t like figuring things out when a car is 50 mph faster than you. I want to know exactly what’s going to happen. I can tell what’s going to happen if I’m going faster than them. But they come up on you -- I don’t know who that guy is, or what he’s thinking, or how tired he is at 5 o’clock in the morning.”
Clearly, Bowyer will be in a much more comfortable atmosphere when he returns to Daytona next month for Speedweeks -- by which time his runner-up championship finish last season will probably seem like a distant memory. But even at the 24-hour race, among exotic cars and drivers with unfamiliar last names, he still promises to bring his personality along with him. The Grand-Am boys may not know what hit them.
“Should I wear cowboys boots in the Ferrari?” Bowyer asked. “I think that would be cool. With my firesuit tucked in.”