CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Clint Bowyer is a happy driver. After languishing at a less than competitive team for a season while waiting out Tony Stewart’s last full season Bowyer is now ready to get back into the swing of things, so to speak.
After losing his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing when that team shut down, Bowyer was named as the replacement for the retiring Stewart. The only caveat was he needed to wait an entire season. That waiting season was spent behind the wheel of an HScott Racing prepared machine. The underfunded team meant Bowyer, who had eight Cup wins prior to 2016, spent most of last season deep in the field, scoring only three top-10 finishes. That team folded at the end of the season and Bowyer sued the team for missed payments and settled out of court.
Tuesday, Bowyer, smiling ear to ear, faced reporters at the NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway for the first time as a full-fledged driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
“Hi everybody,” Bowyer exclaimed as he came on stage. “Remember me?”
Bowyer was wearing the fire suit with sponsor logos only recently worn by Stewart. Bowyer was the first to admit that this off season was unlike any other for him.
“A lot of thought really goes into the new season,” he said. “With a new life, a new chance, a new crack at-bat, a new manufacturer, new sponsors, new teammates and a new organization, but what an unbelievable opportunity it is to go out and do what you love to do, not only to do that but do it in first-class equipment built by racers that only share one thing in common – the will to go out and win races. That’s all they do. It’s all they focus on. It’s all they talk about. It’s all they care about. There’s no fluff and buff. There’s no sales pitch when you walk in the door, there are just guys with their heads down working and digging on building race cars that go fast and win races. Those are the hot rides you want to be in.”
While Bowyer and his new boss Stewart were friends prior to this season, Bowyer is now a full time employee of the organization, and Stewart is officially his boss.
“He’s a really good owner,” Bowyer said. “That was the side of Tony that I didn’t know. He obviously is a lot of fun to be around as a race car driver and as Tony Stewart, as Smoke, but as an owner I’ve really watched him over the off-season, in particular the Christmas party.”
“I went over to the company Christmas party and I look over and Santa Claus is there, and then I got to looking a little closer and it’s Tony. Tony is Santa Claus, which, by the way, he fit perfectly into the outfit. I mean, it was like it was tailored to him, but nonetheless, it was jolly old St. Nick, Tony Stewart, that really took the time and walked all around and embraced his employees and thanked his employees and made them feel like they’re family, like you wanted him to do and like you hoped that he would be and that was every bit the role he played and ownership at Stewart-Haas from what I saw of him as an owner and then as an owner of my car and my boss, he’s giving me a great deal of confidence of putting me in that race car as has Gene Haas.”
One of Bowyer’s new teammates, Kevin Harvick, is proof that the switch to SHR can be a career-defining move. In his first three years with SHR, Harvick has 12 wins and captured the first championship of his career in 2014. He followed that up with a second-place finish in title hunt in 2015.
During his three years with SHR, Harvick has seen Stewart weather quite a bit of adversity. Stewart missed races with a broken leg, was involved in a fatal accident at a short track in New York, and missed the first part of last season with a back injury. Harvick sees Stewart a little differently.
“I think I came in at probably three unique years for Tony in his career,” Harvick said Tuesday. “I don’t know that it was at the highest level that Tony Stewart was at in his driving career with all the things he has had going.”
“The one thing I can say that has been very different is when you are around Tony, you know how Tony can be. You get to see him in the competitive element of what he does.
“For me, the couple things I have learned about Tony is how good he is with people. He may not know exactly what is going on in a situation but he is very good at gathering the information and processing it and then going out and making things happen. He can make things happen. He is very good with people and very good at sitting people down and talking to them and getting things figured out.
“The second thing is you would think he is going to be that guy that is going to get mad and bang his fist down but he is actually the guy that is going to sit in the room, not say a word – or if he does say something it will be little until he has his thoughts gathered and truly understands what he wants to say. He is definitely – now don’t get me wrong, he can go on a tirade if he already knows how he feels about something, and move on. But that is not going to happen, in my opinion, in a SHR environment, in a competition meeting or something like that.”
For Bowyer, his new boss may look good as Santa Claus, but Stewart has given him one very important thing:
“People have asked me today, ‘How do you have the confidence to get back to where you need to be?’”, Bowyer said. “And that’s it. That’s all the confidence you need is you have a three-time champion of this sport and a big-time owner in motorsports that had the confidence in you to put you in the thing, so that gave me all the confidence I needed to be behind the wheel.”