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Tuesday December 18th, 2018 12:17PM

Clint Bowyer’s rejuvenated career springs title hopes

By Holly Cain-NASCAR Wire Service
  Contact Editor

In big time NASCAR racing, there are, of course, victory lane celebrations for the race winner.

And then there are Clint Bowyer victory lane celebrations or rather, as we learned Monday, victory lane, grandstands, pit road, frontstretch, track garage, driver motor home lot, Stewart-Haas Racing shop and, of course, back home in Kansas celebrations.

Parties, soirees, clicking-of-the-heels. High toasts, hearty handshakes, pats on the back. Smiles all around. There was plenty of hooting and hollering too – and that was just from Bowyer.

It’s all the result of one of the most popular victories in recent Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history – Bowyer’s 1.146-second win over Kyle Busch in Monday’s weather-delayed STP 500 at the historic Martinsville Speedway.

The big positive vibes weren’t because the 37-year old Bowyer bested this season’s three-time runner-up Busch – but because Bowyer simply “bested.”

It’s been nearly six years since the popular veteran won a Cup race. He’s had 24 top-fives, including six runner-up finishes since his last win — at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October, 2012, his best full season when he finished runner-up to Brad Keselowski for the championship.

It’s been 190 races and five full seasons since Bowyer last lifted a Cup trophy and he’s driven for two other teams since he last celebrated. But as Monday so dramatically demonstrated, Bowyer has found his sweet spot at Stewart-Haas Racing, where he is tight with his three other co-drivers Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch and is especially fond of his team owners including Tony Stewart – who last drove the same No. 14 to a victory lane two years ago.

“I’m not lying when I texted Tony Stewart, this is good times,” Bowyer said. “This is fun to be in this equipment. It’s fun to be alongside our teammates. I appreciate this opportunity more than. … it’s hard to say, know what I mean?

“Everybody that knows me, knows that I have fun and run my mouth and I’m goofy and everything else, but I do appreciate this opportunity and appreciate the army of people that make this possible for all of us.

“Speaking of relationships, I guarantee you that’s the neatest thing about motorsports and everything, part of it, is when I get to that phone it’ll be people from Richard Childress that gave me this opportunity, to (former team owner) Michael Waltrip, who gave me an opportunity in 2012, to fast forward to Tony Stewart, the people that are giving me this opportunity today, and these guys that I’ll be able to share this stage with.

“Those are the cool things that you’ll remember forever.”

And this victory will undoubtedly fall in that category – for its timing, circumstance and the immediate, heart-warming opportunity to share with his young family. Monday was the first time Bowyer was able to celebrate a Cup win with his two children – two and a half year-old son Cash and 15-month old daughter Presley – in victory lane alongside him.

There is a photograph – likely to be cherished forever by Bowyer and his wife Lorra – that shows a smiling Cash excitedly running down the track immediately after the race to meet his dad, with Lorra holding Presley, approaching just behind.

On television, Bowyer picked up his son, gave him the checkered flag he’d just collected for the victory and did his live national television interview with Cash in his arms.

The setting was telling, and visually indicative of how significant Sunday’s win was for Bowyer – both personally and professionally.

“I started to put all these things together, and I was starting to reflect on this, and the one thing that’s always missing is a picture with him (Cash), you know, and that’s where it changes your thought process and actually your reasoning for racing,” Bowyer said.

“A lot of people want to think about these kids as being a distraction,” Bowyer said, dismissing that idea.

“You start to think about what really matters in life, and the one thing that I didn’t want him to go through life is not to know what this was all about.

“So to be able to have him in victory lane and have his No. 1 in victory lane, that was pretty cool, wasn’t it.”

And, Bowyer joking added, he was going to put the grandfather clock, traditionally awarded to Martinsville winners, on the roof of his wife’s SUV for the drive back to their Charlotte, North Carolina home.

“It meant a lot to me to be able to put it all together at this track because it’s one that I feel like I’ve lost way more than I’ve ever gained here, and I wanted that damn clock,” Bowyer said, adding as the room erupted in laughter, “How are we going to get it home? What do you do?

“I’m going to ratchet strap it to my wife’s SUV. We’re going to be the Clampetts with our trophy ratchet strapped to the roof of the SUV, but it’s coming home.”

It will represent so much. Before leaving the track to take questions from reporters in the infield, Bowyer was approached by fellow competitors. In addition to his SHR teammates, other drivers from seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson to Kyle Larson to Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. walked by for a handshake, pat on the back or to give Cash a thumbs-up.

Even his team owner Gene Haas’ Formula One team offered congratulations from Australia via Twitter.

“.@StewartHaasRcng is on fire,” Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean tweeted. “Well done to everyone in the team and to @ClintBowyer for another victory.”

Bowyer’s success – the fourth win for the team (Harvick has three others) in 2018 – was not only a bold statement for SHR which now boasts four drivers ranked among the top-11 in the points standings; but a bold statement that he is “back” and ready to be reckoned with.

Perhaps his win – just prior to a rare NASCAR off-weekend – came at the perfect time. Bowyer will have time to properly celebrate and to properly reclaim his groove as the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 on April 8.

And this weekend’s victory – a career restoration, of sorts – may not be the last for Bowyer in 2018. It is the start.

“I haven’t won as many races as I needed to, but I’ve always been consistent, and that was always putting myself in position to have a shot at winning the championship at the end of the year,” Bowyer said. “I finished second, had a lot of success in this sport, and being able to shine at the end of the year when the time is right for everybody involved, and over the last few years, I haven’t been able to put all that together.

“This is a year that’s starting to shape up to where I feel like I’m accustomed to, way back when, when I was confident that we were going to go to the end of the year and we were going to compete for a championship.”

And now he is back in position to do so.

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