KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- After the final pit stop last Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the lines of communication were burning up between the pit box, the race car, and the top of the grandstand. Over the analog radio that fans can listen in on, spotter Brett Griffin was coaching Clint Bowyer to manage fuel, to be easy on the accelerator into the corner, and easy again coming out. On a secondary digital channel, Griffin and crew chief Brian Pattie were talking gas mileage, and how much longer they would have to stay conservative until they could let the driver of the No. 15 cut it loose.
With 20 laps remaining, they did, and Bowyer stormed off to claim a victory that placed him on the cusp of championship contention at the midway point of the Chase. He raced over that final stretch believing he had enough fuel to make it to the end -- while Pattie and Griffin knew they might be a little bit short, something that became evident when Bowyer ran dry trying to do a celebratory burnout. But they kept that information to the secondary channel, not wanting their driver to lose focus on the task at hand by getting distracted over how much fuel was in the tank.
"We're not going to get him excited," Pattie said. "We'll let him race and see what happens."
Bowyer doesn't need help getting excited -- it comes naturally to a driver who is as live a wire as there is in the Sprint Cup garage. His car owner, Michael Waltrip, calls him "Mr. ADD." Griffin calls him "a very high-strung individual." This is, after all, a guy who woke up the morning after his Charlotte victory with a drive shaft in his bed, and who during a recent tour of the NASCAR Hall of Fame wanted to know if it was possible to get Junior Johnson's moonshine still cranked up again. Excitability is as much a part of Bowyer as his knack for car control. "Haven't you heard the crew chief and spotter trying to keep me calm all the way through the race?" he asks.
So yes, Bowyer's nature presents some challenges when it comes to staying focused inside the race car, something that as in the final laps at Charlotte, often requires two-radio coordination between Pattie and Griffin. A big key to it all is the spotter, who joined the No. 15 team prior to the Chase opener at Chicagoland, and whose personal relationship with the driver pays dividends on the race track. When former spotter and Michael Waltrip Racing vice president Ty Norris stepped aside to focus on his other duties, the call went to Griffin, who had most recently worked with Jeff Burton and had a friendship with Bowyer dating back to a meeting at a Blake Shelton concert several years ago.
To outsiders, the eve of the championship playoff seemed an odd time for a spotter switch. To Bowyer, it seemed a natural move. "Everybody was like, 'What the hell are you doing?'" he said. "Ty and I talked about it, Michael and I, all of us talked, and that was the only situation I would have went into .... I knew it was good, and I didn't worry one thing about it."
It's difficult to argue with the results -- after entering the Chase as the sixth seed, Bowyer has recorded top-10s in every playoff race save a Talladega event where he was caught up in the 25-car crash on the final lap. In the process he's moved up to fourth in points, 28 behind leader Brad Keselowski heading into Sunday's event at Kansas Speedway, which the Emporia native considers his home track. "Clint will just top-five and top-10 you to death," Denny Hamlin said. "He'll be a guy that, he's going to finish in that group every single week, and that's what he's really good at. He's extremely good at points racing. Every Chase that he's been in, he's just really been right there in the mix, kind of hanging around."
Of course, a comfort level helps. Griffin, who also runs a marketing agency, manages Elliott Sadler's business affairs and spots for the Nationwide Series points leader on Saturdays, believes his personal relationship with Bowyer is helping to keep the driver more focused on the race track. Although he spotted for Burton at Richard Childress Racing, during restrictor-plate races in the tandem-draft era he typically worked with both Burton and Bowyer at the same time. So he knew what he was taking on when he teamed in September with Bowyer, a driver who calls himself "a little bit of a lunatic out there" -- and with good reason.
"Clint is a very high-strung individual. If you've seen him give an interview, you can feel his energy coming through the television. If you take that in person, man, it's times 10. So his enthusiasm and his energy is extremely high," Griffin said.
"These guys probably feel pretty isolated when they get in there are put their helmet on. I think probably more so than some of the other spotters Clint has had in the past, he and I having such a great relationship off the track helps me to understand is personality, and to understand what he needs. If he's in there freaking completely out, you're really not going to be able to reason with him at that time. But as soon as he makes a good move or something positive happens for us on the race track, if you can get his focus back on, oh man, things are back going well and this is why, it helps us go back in a more positive direction."
Waltrip, who had Griffin as his spotter more than a decade ago, is certainly a believer. "He just makes Clint better," the car owner said. "Clint is an amazing driver, but Brett helps him focus. We have radios where Brian is able to talk to Brett, and Brian tells Brett what Brett needs to say to Clint. It's an amazing coaching job. [Bowyer] is an elite athlete, and he has some great coaching that goes on behind the scenes. What I love about Clint is he listens to them, even though he's this guy who can drive a car like very few people can. He takes all that information, and you'd like to tell him to leave him alone, I think, but he knows that it helps. What a great team effort. Brett deserves a lot of credit."
Bowyer will admit, he can be tough on spotters, partly because he demands more than the kind of information he can discern on his own. "Anybody can see there's an automobile to the inside of you and not pull down. They can tell you that. You need somebody up there that is close to you, that knows you and knows you personally as a friend, and knows when you're wound up to calm you down, and when you're bummed out or frustrated, they keep you motivated. That's what Brett does," he said.
"He does such a good job of common sense. ... Again, it needs to be somebody that you know, that knows you and knows what you're thinking when you say, 'Where are they running?' Don't tell me the two cars in front of me. No kidding. I can see those guys. I need to know if there's a faster car on the track and he's possibly running 10th or something and running a different line. Tell me that. I can see the guys who are in front of me. If the leader's half a track ahead of me and he's running a different line, try to help me with that. That's [where] a spotter can come help you and work with you and keep you in the game and keep you focused."
So far, so good. Griffin and Bowyer are close enough that the spotter doesn't hesitate to tell the driver to stop fixating on his mirrors, which the hyperaware Bowyer is often wont to do. Bowyer's father has told Griffin that his son seems calmer -- a relative term, of course, when it comes to the driver of the No. 15 car -- since Griffin came on board. "I think that's not because of who I am as a spotter, but who I am as a friend to him," Griffin said. And there have been no major meltdowns over the radio during this Chase, at least not yet.
"Knock on wood," Griffin said. "We're five weeks into this, and he hasn't freaked out on me yet. I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that we can keep that going for five more weeks."
After which, Bowyer will be free to be excitable to his heart's content. And if he somehow overcomes his current 28-point deficit to win the title? If the celebration following his Charlotte victory was so crazy that he woke up with a car part in his bed, there's no telling what a Bowyer championship bash might be like. "It might kill us all," he said, without hesitation. From Clint Bowyer, no one would expect anything less.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Clint Bowyer