CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Clint Bowyer fielded fan questions for nearly 30 minutes Monday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where the topics covered everything from his recent appearance on an episode of “Duck Dynasty” to his displeasure with people who text while driving.
Not a single person asked him about Richmond.
Finally, nearly two months after Bowyer spun late in the race that set the field for the Sprint Cup-deciding Chase, the scandal is finally fading into his rearview mirror.
His actions in the Sept. 7 race triggered a massive chain reaction that knocked the wind out of NASCAR as it headed into its championship portion of the season. Michael Waltrip Racing was crippled with the loss of a longtime sponsor, and Martin Truex Jr. and 15 percent of the MWR workforce were given pink slips.
Bowyer, one of the most popular drivers inside the garage, suddenly found he was considered Public Enemy No. 1 among a fan base that only in the last few years had begun to appreciate his talent and humor.
“I was in middle of a storm, certain kind of storm. A four-lettered storm is what I’d call that,” Bowyer said Monday.
It took a toll on the freewheeling country boy from Kansas. He was second in the points heading into the Richmond race and thought he’d challenge for a championship this year. Then came the fallout from Richmond, where NASCAR said MWR deliberately manipulated the finish of the race in an attempt to get Truex into the 12-driver Chase field.
He said he quickly figured out the final laps at Richmond had created a firestorm that wasn’t going away anytime soon.
“I didn’t that night. But then (figured out) ‘this is not good,’ “Bowyer said. “I was immediately crushed because of the sport and what I care and believe about this sport. It was tough.”
The Chase was effectively over for Bowyer before it began. He opened with a ninth-place finish at Chicago, where points leader Matt Kenseth won, and was 17th the next week at New Hampshire, where Kenseth won again. Just like that, Bowyer was 10th in the standings and out of the title hunt.
He admitted the drama contributed to his team stumbling out of the gate.
“I never would have dreamed in a million years that would have escalated into what it did, it was a bad deal,” Bowyer said. “Hardest thing I’ve ever been through in this sport, but certainly not the hardest thing I’ve been through in my life. It was tough to listen to those things for a while. ”
Bowyer had a blast on Sunday at Martinsville, where led 60 laps — he’d led only nine laps total since Richmond, where he led 72 — and finished third. It was his best finish of this Chase, only his third top-10 in seven races and first top-five.
It moved him up two spots in the standings to sixth, and Bowyer can now see the top-five in the final standings. That’s where he wants to end the season, and where he believes he belongs after 13 weeks ranked no lower than third.
“It was fun to be at Martinsville and be back in action. I live for that. The excitement, intensity, emotion, energy, the fights, the hard racing,” he said.
“It wasn’t meant to be this year. As far as the future, there’s been a lot of plans and meetings to get that set in stone and make the best of it. We will. We’ve made mistakes and certainly learning from them. I’ve had enough. You’re going to play the cards you’re dealt the best you can.”