RICHMOND, Va. — Clint Bowyer's NASCAR season started with a chance to win the Daytona 500. A late-race wreck ended his opportunity and set the tone for a miserable opening month.
The low point came after a blown engine at Bristol dropped Bowyer to 24th in Sprint Cup points, and there were few indications that his Richard Childress Racing team could climb out of the hole.
But it did.
Bowyer goes into tonight's race, the Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway, as the hottest driver in the series. Four consecutive top-10s, including back-to-back second-place finishes, have vaulted him all the way up to 10th in the standings.
"A month ago I was worried, very much so," Bowyer said. "But at the end of the day, the reality was it was still way early in the season, still is even today. … But it feels good to be able to get on a little bit of a roll here, and hopefully we can continue to ride that wave."
Now comes Richmond, one of his best tracks. Bowyer has five top-10s in 10 career starts, and his average finish of 9.8 at Richmond is his best at any track.
He'll start third tonight behind pole-sitter Juan Montoya and Regan Smith.
And Bowyer's Richmond victory in 2008 was one of his most memorable.
Denny Hamlin led 381 of the first 382 laps until a tire issue let Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sail past him for the lead with 17 remaining. Caution eventually was called for Hamlin, setting up a five-lap sprint to the finish with Earnhardt, Busch and Bowyer holding the first three spots.
Busch then made contact with Earnhardt's car, sending Earnhardt spinning into the wall — and opening a hole for Bowyer to slide past and steal the victory.
"That win was probably the most fun I've ever had in Victory Lane because it was a surprise," Bowyer said. "I knew we had a fast car, and we put ourselves up there and put ourselves in position, and the right circumstances played out, and we were able to win the race."
But wins don't come easily — Bowyer has made four trips to Victory Lane in his Cup career.
His team made changes when the No. 33 Chevrolet was not running nearly as well as teammates Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard. Bowyer's crew chief, Shane Wilson, began to use setups closer to Harvick's and Menard's, resulting in a seventh-place finish at California, ninth at Martinsville — where Bowyer led 91 laps and Harvick won — and then seconds at Texas and Talladega.
"(I'm) very proud of our race team to get things turned around," Bowyer said. "The first four races were just terrible, and we dug in deep and had a decent run at Martinsville and just kind of continued to build on that and get that ball rolling, get the monkey off your back."
Harvick said he never doubted the No. 33 team would snap its slump.
"It was good to see what they were doing, they could change the direction and turn it around instantly," Harvick said.
The past month has given Bowyer reasons not to look too far outside RCR during his current contract negotiations. He's in the final year of his deal.
"I've talked to Richard a couple of times, and hopefully we're getting close on that," Bowyer said. "I've just been having fun at the racetrack, focusing on what I can do. … If you go have fun at the racetrack, then I feel like the rest will come."