RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Clint Bowyer is having a terrible year. Tony Stewart, too.
The veteran drivers have struggled through most of the first eight races this year before breakthrough performances last weekend at Bristol. Neither driver believes they’ve turned a corner, but both believe they can be competitive Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Why? Because the current NASCAR rules package both are struggling with doesn’t necessarily dictate their fate at Richmond, another short track where driver ability can still trump aerodynamics, horsepower and ill-handling race cars.
Bowyer was on pace for his second top-10 finish last week before he was caught in a late accident; Stewart was sixth, his first top-10 finish this season.
“It just seems like this package that we keep migrating to with our sport, it just kind of keeps painting you in a corner of you are only as good as your equipment,” Bowyer said Friday at Richmond. “It’s too bad because the only differential right now is when you get to some short tracks, it’s still kind of old-school, get up on the wheel and make some stuff happen.”
Bowyer has been slumping this season with a Michael Waltrip Racing team that is admittedly behind the competition. Stewart, though, has been relegated to the middle of the pack as teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have had some of the strongest cars each week.
Stewart, a three-time champion, is simply struggling with the rules package.
“Part of this year, for me, is trying to get caught back up and to get back up to speed with the change in the rules package and the engine package,” he said. “I’m used to driving really high-horsepowered cars and when they took the horsepower away from us, that’s something that was different for me. It’s a matter of me changing my driving style to compensate for what the rules package is.”
Stewart is a three-time winner at Richmond, and Bowyer has two victories on the 0.75-mile, D-shaped oval. Both drivers consider it their favorite on the circuit.
“It’s the perfect-sized track for a Cup race,” Stewart said. “It seems like we have to race ourselves and race the racetrack versus racing each other a lot of times.”
That’s the same challenge Bowyer enjoys, and one he feels gives him a chance on Saturday night. Team co-owner Michael Waltrip said this week the organization recognizes it’s lagging in several areas — “we understand we are off a little bit, and we’ll fix it,” he said — and Bowyer believes MWR is finally recognizing where they need to make the most gains.
“There’s a little bit of an empty spot there, empty feeling like the tunnel is closing in early in the season when you know you are way off,” Bowyer said. “You have no idea how far off and you get to dig in, and then you are learning and hearing where the Jones’ are at and you realize you are quite a way off from them.”
Figuring out where the improvements must be made has been reassuring for Bowyer, who has spent the first two months of the season questioning himself.
“It’s almost a relief because anytime you are off the least little bit, you look at yourself,” he said.
A turning point was Bristol, where even though his No. 15 Toyota was off , he was able to drive his way through traffic and run inside the top 10 before Jamie McMurray’s blown tire ended his race.
“That didn’t even bother me — being able to pass some cars again this season and have a good run, heck, I was in good spirits,” he said. “Now we are here and we still need a little speed, but it seems like on the short track we can race with them just fine. But this old place has been good to me and I am pretty comfortable here and wherever we qualify I know we can get a good run and contend for the win.”