Bowyer out to revive NASCAR career as Stewart’s replacement

In this Jan. 18, 2017, file photo, team owner Tony Stewart, left, and driver Clint Bowyer pose for a photo during a news conference in Concord, N.C. Bowyer gets his first ride in a brand new shiny Ford Fusion, one adorned with Stewart's beloved No. 14 on the side, when practice for the Daytona 500 begins on Saturday. (AP)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Clint Bowyer hasn’t won a race since 2012, hasn’t made the playoffs in three years and is coming off an embarrassingly bad season.

The worst of his career. It was so bad the one-time championship contender was a backmarker in nearly every event.

But there was never reason to panic for Bowyer, who was long-slated to replace three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart when Stewart retired at the end of last year. It meant a happy ending for Bowyer. He’d get to move to Stewart-Haas Racing, his one-year banishment to HScott Motorsports — where he was stashed for a year to wait for Stewart’s finale — finally over. Bowyer would get his reprieve.

He gets his first ride in a brand new shiny Ford Fusion, one adorned with Stewart’s beloved No. 14 on the side, when practice for the Daytona 500 begins on Saturday.

It’s fair to ask Bowyer, after failing to run well for such a long stretch, if he still knows his way to victory lane.

“Hey, that’s a real legitimate question,” Bowyer said. “You just don’t know. I think the last time I was in a good car, I was good. I think that I’m a smarter driver than I was three years ago. I think I’m plenty capable of winning races. I love what I see at Stewart-Haas, I really do believe if I’m going to win a race this is the exact team I’m going to win with.

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if it was the Daytona 500? So I can stop answering that damn question?”

Bowyer is one of the skilled plate racers in NASCAR and he can typically rise to the challenge of a tight pack and split-second decision making. He’s a two-time winner at Talladega and has three top-five finishes at Daytona. It makes Daytona International Speedway probably the best place for him to debut with a new team because he’s so comfortable at the track.

“I love Daytona. I know a lot of people don’t say that, but I like it. Maybe I’m a lunatic?” he said.

There was only one chance for Bowyer to get in the car before Daytona, but it was a team test at Phoenix in which only one driver could represent the organization. The natural pick was to send Kevin Harvick, who has eight career victories at the Arizona track.

Bowyer didn’t challenge the call, and like teammates Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, he’ll utilize all the information Harvick gathered. But until he actually pulls his new car out onto the track Saturday, Bowyer doesn’t know what to expect. He will be with his third different manufacturer in three years — he drove a Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, then a Chevrolet last season — and now he is in a Ford as SHR makes a long-planned switch.

The manufacturer change doesn’t bother Bowyer, and neither do his results the past few years. He’s a driver with high energy and a short attention span, so the year waiting for his seat to open was agony.

“The biggest challenge was waiting a year to get in it — get (Stewart’s) butt out of it and mine in. That’s been the biggest challenge,” Bowyer said.

Without testing, though, he hasn’t had a chance to get to know his new crew. He asked for a roster, but crew chief Mike Bugarewicz went further.

“He’s such a dedicated person and so prepared that he literally went and took pictures of all the guys and emailed me names of them,” Bowyer said. ” I was like, ‘Man, you didn’t have to do that.’ I’ll still screw it up, but, at the end of the day, that’s the level of dedication you have at Stewart-Haas and it just doesn’t end with Mike, it’s all across the board.”

Stewart jokes he sometimes wonders if he chose the right successor for his car. But he and Bowyer have been friends for many years and share a similar sense of humor. And at their core, they are both true racers.

“We both have a great sense of humor and our backgrounds are really similar,” Stewart said. “We’re both dirt track racers, but racing against him I saw things that I saw in myself. I see that drive and determination and he’s one of those guys that does not like to lose and that fits what we want at Stewart-Haas Racing.”