It was a difficult week to be Clint Bowyer.
In the aftermath of a spinout at Richmond International Raceway that helped spark a race manipulation scandal so big it twice altered the makeup of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the typically affable Michael Waltrip Racing driver heard it from all sides. From many reporters there were nonstop questions about whether he looped his No. 15 car on purpose, and from many fans there were outcries assuming Bowyer had done just that. "Cheater!" he heard shouted at him more than once, whether it was at a live contenders event in Chicago, or walking out of the drivers' meeting before the race in Joliet, Ill.
So perhaps no one was probably happier to blow out of the Windy City than Bowyer, who by the end of last weekend had become another instrument of controversy in a town where intrigue is as deeply-rooted as the ivy on the outfield walls of Wrigley Field. He managed a solid if unspectacular ninth-place finish in the opening Chase race -- maybe more impressive than it seemed, given the circumstances of the previous seven days -- and disappeared into the night.
And now comes a change of venue, perhaps mental as well as physical for a driver who more than any other needs to turn the page. A big city infamous for antiheroes, wheeler-dealers, and smoke-filled back rooms gives way to a more pastoral setting of birch forests and leaves turning from green to gold. And the turmoil of Joliet is replaced by the promise of New Hampshire Motor Speedway -- which offers not only a chance for Bowyer to further distance himself from "SpinGate," as some have called it, but also a real opportunity for the MWR driver to make a statement in this Chase.
It's easy to forget, amid all the scandal and the recriminations, that Bowyer was a driver poised to take the points lead from Jimmie Johnson before the engine in his No. 15 car seized up at Atlanta. It's easy to overlook how good he can be at New Hampshire, which may not be Bowyer's best track -- statistically, that would be the road course at Sonoma -- but it's still a place where he can put an absolute spanking on the field.
He's done that twice, in a 2007 effort where he dominated the show by leading 222 of 300 laps en route to his first career victory, and again in 2010 when he paced 177 circuits at the front. Of course, that win three years ago quickly became embroiled in a controversy of a different kind, when NASCAR inspectors at the Research and Development Center found the vehicle to be out of whack, and the ensuing penalty effectively doomed Bowyer's championship hopes just one race into the playoff. Somehow the guy seems to find trouble when he's at or near his best, as we saw again last year in his run-in with Jeff Gordon at Phoenix while still on the fringes of title contention.
No question, that latter New Hampshire victory is accompanied by a sizeable asterisk, and both of those triumphs occurred well before the implementation of the Generation-6 car Sprint Cup teams are using this year. They also happened with Richard Childress Racing, Bowyer's former team. But the Kansas native finished third and fourth, respectively, in the two races last year on the Magic Mile with MWR. His teammate Brian Vickers won there in the spring. MWR competition director Scott Miller, also serving as interim crew chief on Vickers' No. 55 car, was at RCR with Bowyer those two times he routed the field at Loudon. And NHMS is still a technical, hit-it-or-miss-it track, certainly opening the door for someone to run away from everyone else.
Just like Bowyer has done twice. "If there is a track on the schedule that I feel we could make up some ground in the Chase, New Hampshire is that track," he said in his weekly team release. "I've won at New Hampshire twice, and I love everything about it. The flat short tracks seem to fit my driving style the best, and I have had a lot of success there, so we are pretty confident going in. We could use a big week to get back on the right track."
The Chase is only one race in, but it's already beginning to stratify, with Matt Kenseth picking right up where he left off in the regular season and engine failures putting Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. more than a full race behind the leaders. An early victory by one of those middle-of-the-pack drivers could go a long way toward determining on which end of the spectrum they end up. And for Bowyer, it would certainly be a giant step toward turning the focus back toward the race track, and away from the scandal that's ensnared him over the past week.
Yes, a lot of this is of his own making. Yes, he probably should have come clean about his Richmond spin from the very beginning, rather than dancing around the subject like a performer on stage at the Chicago Theatre. But some of the catcalls he had to deal with last week would make you wince. "Be nice," host Nicole Briscoe admonished some in the crowd after they got a little too vocal in a live program featuring Chase drivers at Navy Pier. Yeah, he screwed up. But given his personality, and given that Bowyer seems to represents so much of what people like in NASCAR drivers, you'd hope this wouldn't dog him forever.
"I consider Clint Bowyer to be one of the best people in this garage," said former RCR teammate Jeff Burton, in what's no small endorsement. "Anybody that says otherwise doesn't know what the hell they're talking about. Actions can be looked at, but when you start talking about somebody and who they are to the core, and you really don't know them -- you've got to be careful. Because some people have been accused of things this week and called things that just aren't fair."
NASCAR's most popular driver seemed to agree. "I feel bad for Clint," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I know Clint, and I know what kind of person he is. I feel bad for him because he was part of something that is not a good reflection of his personality. It's unfortunate. But he'll be fine."
Certainly, a victory this weekend at New Hampshire could go a long way toward that. As he's shown in the past, Bowyer is capable of demolishing the field on a difficult flat track where the former dirt racer has twice motored to Victory Lane. Should he do it again Sunday, backing up a regular season where he didn't win but nonetheless lingered high in the standings, he could establish himself as a serious Chase contender -- especially with favorable venues like Charlotte and Talladega still looming ahead.
Would that completely shake the specter of Richmond, or completely eliminate the razzings like those he took in Chicago? Probably not. It may take a long offseason to do that. But NASCAR is better with a Bowyer who's vying for race wins in the car, and is his natural, playful self outside of it. One step at a time. The first comes Sunday in New Hampshire, where a driver partially responsible for NASCAR making two changes to the Chase has an opportunity to stake his claim to winning it. Should he manage that, the spires of Chicago may suddenly feel very far away indeed.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- New Hampshire