Bowyer hoping to finish strong in the Chase
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Clint Bowyer is such a live wire that the air just about crackles when he walks into a room. Within seconds of sitting down for a question-and-answer session with fans at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, he's off and running -- about the days when his dad would load up a rental truck and go to Talladega, about winning drag races on back roads and stealing his opponent's girlfriend, about seeing the seat in one of Dale Earnhardt's old cars in the museum run by his former car owner Richard Childress.
"They're running 200 mph, and this thing had like an '84 Chevy van seat. He made it himself," Bowyer said. " … That’s just nuts. It was just this van seat going 200 mph. It bounced, it had the springs in it still. And those lunatics are out there running 200 mph? No thank you."
It was only the beginning. Soon he was on to hunting and going to the bathroom outside in 18-degree weather, racing on dirt, Toyota concept cars, road courses and his connection to the reality show "Duck Dynasty." It was 30 rollicking, unpredictable minutes of Bowyer at his short-attention-span best, veering from one subject to another like he was behind the wheel at Watkins Glen, without any mention of the one topic that's come to dominate much of Bowyer's life over the past eight weeks.
Well, there was one -- and Bowyer brought it up himself.
"You learn from mistakes," he told the crowd Monday in the Hall of Fame's theater. "Trust me, I've made a few this year."
One would certainly be Richmond, and the spin of his No. 15 car that brought out the caution that changed everything. The ensuing domino effect altered the makeup of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, led to heavy penalties against his Michael Waltrip Racing team, and ultimately forced MWR to consolidate to just two full-time cars for next season. No question, the consequences of that night are still being felt. But if Monday was any indication, Bowyer is also getting back to being his old self once again.
In the immediate aftermath of Richmond, that wasn't the case. A driver who's typically very good with the media and extremely well-liked by fans went into something of a shell, prompted by questions he wouldn’t or couldn't answer and unfamiliar jeers at the race track. He was asked about the spin, a lot. He was booed, a lot. As the race manipulation scandal deepened, a driver famous for his affable, homespun nature and throwback style disappeared. And as a result, the old Clint was replaced for a while by one who kept a relatively low profile.
"It was just out of respect and understanding of the magnitude of the situation," he said in a media session before his Q&A. "I never would have dreamed in a million years that that would have escalated into what it did. It was a bad deal. It was the hardest thing I've ever been through in this sport, but certainly not the hardest thing I've ever been through in my life."
Still, the barbs stung.
"I was listening to the radio and stuff, and these people are taking it to the point -- I mean, really? Come on, get it in grip here. You're taking this to way far extremes," he said. "When you start talking about somebody's character and integrity, you better start talking about them personally. Not anything they do as a profession. That's how I feel about those things. It was kind of tough for me to listen to those things for a while, because it's not like me to just keep my mouth shut. I wanted to bite back. But certainly respected the situation, understood the situation, the magnitude of it, and knew that I was a part of it and didn’t want to be."
It all seemed surreal -- in an instant, Bowyer went from one of NASCAR's most relatable drivers to someone getting booed at driver introductions, or shouted at in the fan forum in Chicago that preceded the Chase opener.
"Hey, I understood," Bowyer said. "It doesn’t change the fact that it was real, and you understand that. It's a bad thing, and I hated that my name had anything to do with it. But at the end of the day it did, and it was a life experience and you’ve got to go on."
And so, the old Clint can't be kept down forever. Monday he was clearly back, joking with the media about his fondness for the Texas-based Babe's Chicken Dinner House chain, calling fans "my man" and "big daddy," venting about highway drivers texting behind the wheel and taking shots at his own short attention span. "If I'm by myself, I'm dangerous," he said. No fans booed him, or asked him about Richmond, or called him a cheater. It came on the heels of Sunday's third-place run at Martinsville, his best race since the whole furor exploded.
"Hey man, life's tough. Ain't gonna slow me down," Bowyer said. "I have a blast doing this, and it was fun to be at Martinsville, fun to be back in the action, fun to be back at those short tracks. Man, I live for that. The excitement, the intensity, the energy, the emotions, the fights, the hard racing -- that’s what makes this sport."
Toward that end, he's hoping to crack the top five in the standings -- he's sixth, 19 points behind Kyle Busch for fifth -- in the final three races of the year. He believes that MWR as a two-car operation can better the sport's traditional powers just like Penske Racing did last season. He looks at the race in two weeks at Phoenix, where his feud with Jeff Gordon erupted a year ago, and sees his rival now in a position similar to the one he was in last fall.
"It's almost exactly the same, roles reversed," said Bowyer, who was third in points when Gordon took him out of the race, and by extension the championship hunt. Coming off his victory Sunday at Martinsville, Gordon is currently third in the standings heading to Texas. Should the four-time champion be worried?
"I would be if I were him," Bowyer said. "But I'm not him. Don’t make a story about it, but that's a real thing. No different than what happened at Richmond. There's consequences that happen with everything. And you can't make a decision or a move that isn't going to come back to haunt you. What happened in Richmond, trust me, is damn sure haunting us."