RICHMOND, Va. -- Clint Bowyer came to Richmond International Raceway this weekend with optimism, a new wedding ring and what appeared to be a contending race car. He left with just the ring.
Bowyer triggered a rare first-lap, first-turn accident with rookie pole-starter Kyle Larson before a series of misfortune eventually turned his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota into a fiery mess, bringing an early end to his Saturday night in the Toyota Owners 400. The resulting last-place finish as the race's first retiree sent him plummeting in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, going home early at one of his best tracks.
"It was on fire. What a bad night," Bowyer said. "I hate this for AAA. This is our first race with them and was really proud to have them on board with us tonight. It was just one thing after another and not a very good night."
Bowyer's night took an odd turn barely before the green flag was out of the starter's hands. He started third but dipped low to make an inside move for the lead under Larson into Turn 1. After the two cars came together, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver looped his No. 42 Chevrolet but managed to avoidcontact with the outside wall, cursing the turn of events on his radio before rejoining the 43-car field at the back of the pack.
"Like I wasn't even there!" Bowyer said over his radio. "Obviously, I didn't mean to do that. I got under him and he just turned back down."
Later, with his night over after completing just 159 of the race's 400 laps, Bowyer apologized for forcing the issue, looking into TV cameras to tell Larson that his "payback" came in the form of his luckless evening.
"I really hate that happened," Bowyer said. "I really like Kyle and I'm a big fan of his. Him and the 2 (Brad Keselowski) kind of spin the tires and I just got such a big run on him when he moved up. Then I was like, 'OK, I guess I'm going to go to the bottom if you're going to give me the bottom.' Then at the last minute he arced it in and I just wasn't ready for him. I tried to get on the brakes and just got into him.
"I'm so glad he didn't hit the wall. I was afraid he hit the wall and ended his night. It certainly didn't help it at all."
Bowyer's day went from strange to worse before the midway point. He made a green-flag pit stop in the 97th of 400 laps with a vibrating right-front tire, then a caution flag flew for debris on Lap 99 to catch him two laps down to the leader.
"Imagine that, before anybody else's tires blew out," Bowyer carped to his crew. "That's dandy."
Bowyer, a two-time Richmond winner, never recovered. By Lap 166, his No. 15 was behind the wall after another right-front tire issue triggered a fire that shrouded that corner of the car in flames. His MWR crew went to work to replace oil and brake lines, burned off in the flames, saying the balance of the race would serve as a virtual test session. But the damage was too severe, bringing a halt to his night.
"How in the hell were we that good in practice?" Bowyer radioed as his crew pushed the car back to the garage.
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