Clint Bowyer will have motivation and a NASCAR Hall of Famer in his corner this weekend at Darlington Raceway, a track that has both awed and confounded him during his driving days.
Bowyer says he plans to lean on NHOF inductee Mark Martin, who will be present in multiple ways — both in person with Bowyer’s Stewart-Haas Racing team, and with a retro paint scheme on Bowyer’s No. 14 Ford that conjures up memories of Martin’s earliest successes. In terms of motivation, Bowyer isn’t short on incentive with two regular-season races left in his last-ditch bid for a playoff spot.
“I can promise you we damn sure don’t give up,” Bowyer says. “I don’t give up until they tell me it’s down and out. So we’ve got Darlington this weekend, Richmond, a good track for us, after that to wrap it up. So, hopefully, we can get in Victory Lane and hopefully we can race ’em.”
Bowyer will carry his postseason hopes and special paint scheme into Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the historic 1.366-mile track. A 58-point deficit separates him from the playoff field of 16 drivers. Though it’s mathematically conceivable for Bowyer to close that gap and become championship-eligible on the basis of points, he pins his most realistic hopes on making the playoffs by securing his first premier-series win since 2012.
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Bowyer has come plenty close, posting three runner-up finishes in his first year with the SHR No. 14. But his personal adjustment to a new team, a new crew chief in Mike Bugarewicz and the overarching undertaking of the organization’s switch of automakers from Chevrolet to Ford have taken a considerable deal of acclimation.
“We’ve knocked on it three different times with three second places, but that’s just the first loser, right?” Bowyer said. “We’ve gotten close. I’m proud of our race team with our 14 team and Mike and all the guys who do such a good job preparing race cars to go to battle with each and every week. …
“We just need to be more consistent, especially with our 14 team. We’ve been a little bit hit-or-miss over the year and that’s usually not my forte. Usually I’m consistent, and I’ve lost that a little bit this year. So definitely got to work on that, but same old story — got to get in Victory Lane.”
Of the two remaining races for Bowyer before the postseason cut-off, Richmond Raceway has been the most kind. The 38-year-old veteran has two of his eight career victories in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at the Virginia short track, which will host the regular-season finale Sept. 9.
Though Richmond offers an inviting fall-back option, Bowyer would cherish unlocking Darlington’s secrets to eliminate the playoff guesswork. Since winning the pole there with a white-knuckle lap in his second season (2007), he’s failed to crack the top 10 in the Darlington results column, snake-bitten at the circuit where pitfalls happen with great frequency.
“It’s part of its nickname — tough,” Bowyer said of the track that’s famously earned the ‘Too Tough to Tame’ label. “And it is tough, man. It’s such a hard place to get around. So unique to any place we go to, rim-riding right around that wall. You get a little greedy, a little more greedy, a little too greedy and then you’re in the wall. You have to respect that place every single lap and manage that race accordingly.”
If there’s an intangible edge for Bowyer, it’s in having Martin — a two-time tamer of Darlington — along for the ride. The Carolina Ford Dealers paint scheme that accompanied Martin for three XFINITY wins from 1988-91 has been reprised for Darlington’s annual throwback weekend.
Bowyer and Martin were teammates at Michael Waltrip Racing in the twilight of Martin’s career in 2012-13. They’ll partner again this weekend, intent on forging into the playoffs while honoring the sport’s past.
“To pay tribute to all of them and give back to the guys that paved the way for us means so much to myself and all of my peers,” Bowyer said. “I know everybody gets excited, especially me, having Mark Martin with us at a track that somehow he tamed quite a few times. I’ll definitely be listening when he’s talking, and just appreciating it and having a smile on my face the whole time he’s around. I know he’s looking forward to it, but I don’t think he’s looking forward to it near as much as we are.”