On Sunday, we witnessed an intense blood moon eclipse, but another rare cosmic event occurred before sundown during the Sprint Cup Race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour ENERGY Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR), is as cosmic as drivers come and is always ready with an uncanny quip for the media. Alas, on Sunday, Bowyer finished a lackluster 26th in the Sylvania 300 and his 2015 Sprint Cup quest will likely end next week at the Dover International Speedway, as he is currently 39 points out of the final cutoff spot, almost an entire race worth of points.
Two weeks ago, during the final regular season race at Richmond International Raceway, Bowyer, on the cusp of barely qualifying for the Chase, proclaimed “I am looking forward to the races after (Richmond). You don’t just want to back your way into the Chase and then not perform and be the first one out. I want to go some rounds and have some fun in it and make some noise.”
Instead for MWR, the company’s epitaph will end with a “checkered” history, but not the kind most organizations seek. Back on August 19th, MWR officials announced that the organization and Bowyer had mutually agreed to sever their relationship following the completion of the 2015 racing season and that MWR would completely shut down and not field any teams in 2016, resulting in the layoff of over 200 employees.
The hemorrhaging continued this past week, as NASCAR penalized the #15 MWR team twenty-five driver and owner points, plus crew chief Billy Scott was to be suspended three races, fined $75,000 and placed on probation for six months, subject to an appeal hearing next Wednesday. Bowyer’s car was found to have illegal track bar components, the result of a pre-race inspection at Chicagoland Speedway last week.
Now, with two forgettable races in the Chase, Clint Bowyer should undoubtedly turn his attention to securing his 2016 ride. Unfortunately for Bowyer, virtually every decent seat is already taken for next year, resulting in a small universe of feasible alternatives on which to speculate. We are already into the 2015 season’s twilight, with “silly season” precedent dictating that major NASCAR driver moves be generally announced no later than August, and often sooner. So, Bowyer’s prospects, while perhaps fading fast, include:
- Furniture Row Racing held a press conference on Sunday prior to the start of the Sylvania 300, officially announcing that FRR will switch from fielding Chevrolets to Toyotas next season. FRR general manager Joe Garone stated “The added resources and technical support that Toyota will provide, along with having a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, definitely increases the growth potential for our team. The track record of Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing speaks for itself.”
Speculation is that Barnie Visser, team principal, would like to add a second team, having achieved a big milestone this year with Martin Truex, Jr. qualifying for the Chase. If Bowyer can bring his sponsors, he seeds some of the investment necessary for FRR to jump start a second team. Additionally, with FRR’s switch to Toyota power, there is a surplus of MWR talent with Toyota engineering experience currently looking for employment. Finally, Truex Jr. and Bowyer were former teammates at MWR. Perhaps Bowyer has been holding out for the door to swing open at FRR, given the shift to Toyota power was the first shoe that needed to drop.
- HScott Motorsports currently fields two drivers, but one of those drivers is Justin Allgaier of the #51 Brandt Chevrolet, who has yet to be re-signed for the 2016 season. Although a deal has been suggested as being in the works, the availability of Bowyer is an option that HSM team principal Harry Scott must be considering given his expressed desire to progress to a larger, more successful Cup organization.
Bowyer is a proven talent, having amassed eight wins and 58 top-five finishes at NASCAR’s highest level of competition. Additionally, he has qualified for the Chase six times in his career and finished second in the final points standings back in 2012. Bowyer’s proven capability for HScott Motorsports offers a clear opportunity to benchmark the performance of his two car team and determine what gaps exist for a smaller team aspiring to rise up the ranks.
- Stewart-Haas Racing, although having qualified two of its four drivers for the Chase, could certainly benefit from Bowyer’s experience and talent, given the lingering struggles at the remaining two teams this year. Having now scheduled a Wednesday team press conference, SHR is expected to announce that Tony Stewart will retire at the end of 2016, opening up a seat for 2017 at one of NASCAR’s most iconic teams. As SHR has a stall full of celebrity drivers with strong personas, Bowyer’s levity would complement the outspoken nature of SHR’s current drivers and principals. Less significant is that Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer were teammates for two years at Richard Childress Racing back in 2010.
Bowyer would still be left to find a “placeholder” ride for 2016; however, Kurt Busch took a similar road to Stewart-Haas when he joined Furniture Row Racing for a short deal prior to joining SHR. Back in 2010, Kasey Kahne also took a similar road to Hendrick Motorsports, when he signed a one-year bridge deal to drive for the now defunct Red Bull Racing while he awaited the conclusion of Mark Martin’s final season at Hendrick. With the web of customers (including Stewart-Haas, Chip Ganassi Racing, and HScott Motorsports) that buy Hendrick powerplants, Bowyer’s ability to find a one-year bridge deal should not be misjudged.
In spite of his current trials, Bowyer remains a homegrown, charismatic driver who appeals to many fans. Like the blood moon eclipse, a proven talent like Bowyer, coming with loyal sponsorship is a rare event. If, as expected, Tony Stewart hangs up his helmet after 2016, the stargazing signs point to a combination of #2 and #3 above, with Bowyer taking the one-year bridge deal to secure his long-term future at SHR.
By Ron Bottano. Follow on Twitter: @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged