Clint Bowyer has arguably been the fourth strongest competitor in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season.
While much of the attention has been placed on the “big three” contenders of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer’s two victories and an average finish of 9.9 places him in the conversation.
The No. 14 team’s comeback performance Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway portrayed their strength at the halfway point of the season.
After leading 21 laps early in the Overton’s 400, three costly penalties under the first pit cycle trapped Bowyer two laps down.
However, a fast car and lucky break with how the cautions played out allowed him to return to the lead lap by the conclusion of Stage 2 and earn stage points for placing eighth.
Bowyer ultimately finished fifth in one of the most impressive come from behind performances of the season.
“The guys work very hard on making sure that they are pushing the envelope, which you have to do in this world and against this competition,” Bowyer said. “You have to push everything. Certainly pit road is a big part of that.”
When needing to gain ground on the top contenders who have shown tremendous speed throughout the year, pit road presents the opportunity to gain crucial time.
“You are splitting hairs out there on the race track down to the tenths of a second and you can gain seconds on pit road,” Bowyer said. “Obviously our pit road speed was just a little too fast.”
One mistake often derails a team’s day but facing three consecutive blunders is unheard of, and the ability to limit mistakes is what allows the most successful drivers to rise.
This sequence highlighted a shortcoming of Bowyer’s compared to the top three performers, but his response defined the No. 14 team’s resilience.
Leading early showed the caliber of the car on Sunday and being able to race back through the field further attested to its speed. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver likely would have been the one to beat throughout the day had it not been for the early penalties.
However, having to fight through the adversity and seeing their determination pay off with Bowyer’s sixth top-five of 2018 provided valuable confidence and momentum.
July will be a very telling month regarding Bowyer’s ability to maintain pace with the big three.
He has proven capable of competing with them each week but now will look to top their performances.
A stellar July propelled two of the last three champions into their title run. Truex Jr. finished first at Kentucky and third at New Hampshire last season while Kyle Busch won all but one race this month in 2015.
Not all champions have fared as well in July, but strong races this month can establish the momentum that can carry a team through August and into the playoffs.
It’s a crucial time for Bowyer to contend closer with the top three drivers and put himself in a position to outduel them this fall.
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