There were big shoes Clint Bowyer was asked to fill at Stewart-Haas Racing and for a while it didn’t seem like that fit just right.
That was then, this is now.
Bowyer’s first season stepping in for the retiring NASCAR star Tony Stewart didn’t go quite as he planned in 2017 – he failed to win a race or a pole, finished 18th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings and led just 22 laps of competition.
But much of SHR was hit-or-miss on performance last season and although frustrated, Bowyer remained convinced he was in the right place.
“As good as (Kevin Harvick) was running, things like that, you could see the ingredients, you could see the potential. We just couldn’t reach it,” Bowyer said at Michigan International Speedway after his second win of the 2018 season.
“I mean, it was so apparent that potential was there, within (Mike Bugarewicz, crew chief), all the guys on our No. 14 team, they’re such a tight-knit group. That was instilled through Tony. Those were his boys. A great race team.
“We just didn’t unload fast. You know what I mean? We could. We’d be hit, miss, miss, miss, miss, hit, hit, miss. We had zero consistency.”
Coming back stronger
That seemed to turn the corner with the start of the new season.
Bowyer was ninth in the series standings entering the race at Martinsville, Va., where he led 215 laps on his way to his first win of the season and snapping a 190-race winless streak in the series.
“I think that’s what gets you through those tough times, is when you see the potential. Not only see it, you feel it,” Bowyer said. “You can lie to yourself. You can lie to anybody else.
“But success is the only thing that brings that potential to the forefront and bleeds over across the board to everybody in the race team.”
The consistency seemed to develop after that with only two finishes outside the Top 15 in the next eight races before he returned to Victory Lane last weekend at Michigan.
“Once that started to happen this year, it’s been so much fun across the board. That’s not just on the No. 14 car, it’s on Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch,” Bowyer said.
“We’re all collecting stage points, doing the things that it takes to be there and compete for a championship at the end. The No. 4 car (Harvick) is knocking it out of the park.”
Bowyer, 39, has had a relative amount of success in his Cup series career. In each of his two prolonged stops – at Richard Childress Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing – Bowyer had championship-contending seasons.
Sustained success, however, has been hard to come by.
That possibility may be what makes Bowyer’s tenure at SHR potentially his most rewarding.
“To be able to compete at that level, that level is a championship-caliber team, you have to be able to unload week-in, week-out with cars capable of getting the job done,” Bowyer said. “Part of that is that most of the work that’s put in before the week even starts.
“It’s months ahead preparing that car for any given weekend. Then it’s the communication leading into the race. Then it’s communication through Friday, through qualifying, through Saturday’s practice sessions, and collectively putting that all together for Sunday.
“We’re starting to do that. We’re starting that notebook that we all talk about. It’s finally starting to resonate to where you can look at it like I can go back and look at last year. We have to learn from (any) mistake, so on and so forth.
“Those are the things we’re starting to pick up on.”