The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be a hot, slick, challenging racetrack for the 40 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers competing in Sunday’s 24th annual Brickyard 400. But, there are few tracks where raising the trophy at the end of the day means more than it does at the 108-year-old Indy oval.
Clint Bowyer knows a win Sunday afternoon would top the list of his career accomplishments in the Cup Series. Only 13 drivers have their likeness on the Brickyard 400 trophy permanently housed in the track’s infield museum. The Emporia, Kansas native will drive the No. 14 most recently driven at Indianapolis by Hoosier racing legend and Bowyer’s boss Tony Stewart, who retired from NASCAR competition last year.
“I love going to Indianapolis,” said Bowyer, whose No. 14 Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) will carry the Mobil 1/Rush Truck Centers paint scheme this weekend. “The history and tradition behind it is very special. It’s a huge opportunity, and a privilege, to be able to race on it. I understand the significance of Indianapolis. I enjoy not only the city, but also the racetrack. Knowing Tony’s thoughts about Indianapolis only makes it more important we do well this weekend.”
Indy is a difficult track for the stock car crowd, whose cars lack the downforce of their open wheel counterparts in the IndyCar Series. The rectangular oval track includes two 5/8-mile straightaways and four nearly identical quarter-mile turns connected by short, eighth-mile straightaways. The turns are banked about nine degrees – far flatter than the 30-plus-degree banking at tracks like Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, and others that are part of the NASCAR schedule.
“Indy is just so unique,” said Bowyer, who has posted two top-five and three-top 10 finishes in 12 starts at Indianapolis. “You’re going so fast. The corners are so flat. You’ve got to have that baby flat to the floor, all the way around. It’s just a hard, hard track to get around.”
He said the key to racing success there is managing risk behind the steering wheel.
“The challenge is trying to be patient,” Bowyer said. “You just have to be patient. You push it to the edge there. You come off of them corners and you’re like, ‘There's no way. I’m gonna hit the wall. Whoo.’ By the way, I gotta do that 400 more miles.”
Bowyer has more incentive than just winning at the world’s most famous racetrack. He and his No. 14 team led by crew chief Mike (Buga) Bugarewicz are battling for one of the final berths in NASCAR’s 16-team playoffs. Bowyer arrives at Indianapolis 15th in the standings, just 54 ahead of the cutoff for the final playoff spot. A win would secure a berth and make for a much more pleasant summer stretch, but Bowyer knows that without a regular-season win, accumulating every available point is mandatory.
He’s done a good job of that in 2017. The No. 14 team has scored the 10th-most points of any team. It’s a significant accomplishment for Bowyer and Bugarewicz in their first season together and first season with Ford Performance. The Roush-Yates-powered team has posted three second-place finishes and eight top-10s this season.
Last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, Bowyer rallied in the closing laps for a seventh-place finish. It marked his third top-10 in the last four races. Bowyer has scored the third-most points of any driver in the last four races that included second-place finishes at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway and Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
“We go into each weekend thinking we need to win to make the playoffs,” Bowyer said. “Indianapolis is no different.”
If successful this weekend, he’ll join a handful of drivers who’ve won at the Brickyard, secured a 2017 playoff berth and taken a place in the history books.
That’s a lot of incentive.