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McFarling: Underdog Bowyer clings to hope

McFarling: Underdog Bowyer clings to hope

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Clint Bowyer hates Zoom meetings. He despises empty grandstands. He abhors having to dodge COVID-19 just to be able to get into his race car every week.

“This pandemic sucks,” Bowyer declared, in one of his least controversial statements ever.

But Bowyer sees some hope on the horizon. The 41-year-old NASCAR veteran could sense it last weekend, when he looked around at Daytona and saw 20,000 tailbones in the seats.

“It’s slowly starting to come back and see life,” Bowyer said this week on — what else? — a video conference call with reporters. “That’s awesome to see, man. You can hear ’em. You can see ’em. That was a damn crowd there last weekend.

“That’s a shot in the arm for our sport, a breath of fresh air for everybody involved. I was across the street at Bass Pro Shop, and it was full of race fans. It was like, yes! We’re back! This is getting close to what normalcy is, and I’m excited about that.”

Bowyer is perpetually enthusiastic, and that includes his feelings about the immediate future. Although he hasn’t won a race in two years, he’s made the 2020 playoffs, which open Sunday night in Darlington.

Bowyer clinched the 13th seed. While the season results to date suggest this championship is a two-man race between Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, Bowyer doesn’t see it that way.

“I’ve come into the playoffs before [in 2012] and won New Hampshire right off the bat, rode that off into a second-place finish and a shot at a title, you know?” Bowyer said. “That’s real. Look at Tony Stewart, his last championship [in 2011]. They sucked all year.

“All of a sudden, boom, here they are, here they come a runnin’. Got on that wave, found the right wave and rode that damn thing off into the sunset down at Homestead and a championship. It can happen. It can happen to any race team.”

For it to happen to him, Bowyer says he’ll have to clean up the errors that have plagued him all season. He’s actually led more laps so far this year (182) than he did all of last season (138), when he placed ninth in the final standings.

But he’s finished inside the top five only twice.

“We’ve been up front, but we’ve made mistakes,” Bowyer said. “Now we have a notebook of what not to do, and we’ve got to put it to good use during these playoffs.”

The first stage of the playoffs sets up well for him. A strong short-track racer, he’ll get to tackle Richmond and Bristol after this week.

Not that closing the stage at Bristol makes anybody particularly comfortable.

“It’s going to be more of the same,” Bowyer said. “They were like, how could we make this as nerve-wracking as possible? We’re talking like ulcer-level nerve-wracking situations, and they found it. Rovals, Bristol, Daytona — I mean, it can’t get any more nerve-wracking than that.

“But you’ve got a new rabbit you’re chasing. That thing gets a little bit worn out as you’re going through those summer months. We’ve got a new one out there in front of the hood, and by God, we’re going to chase it.”

Bowyer is in a contract year with Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s expressed an interest to stay with the team next year if possible.

But when asked how those negotiations were going, he instead held up his hand and pointed to his ringless finger.

“You see that right there?” he said. “I don’t have one of those. If you get me one of those, I’ll have way different opinions on strategies and what I’m going to do, whether I’m staying, whatever.

“I want one of those. Right now, that’s the only thing that matters.”

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