'Racing's fun again' for Clint Bowyer after ending winless streak

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- What were the chances that Clint Bowyer would win Monday's NASCAR Cup Series race? About the same odds that someone might have placed on the chances that the STP 500 would be run on Monday because of a snow delay.

Yet that's exactly how the weekend went down at Martinsville Speedway, stock car racing's oldest major league facility. The only laps run on the flat half-mile oval on Sunday were turned by snowplows, employed after southern Virginia was blanketed by several inches of the white stuff. Almost exactly 48 hours after that winter storm started Saturday afternoon, white stuff had covered Turns 3 and 4 again, the tire smoke produced by Bowyer's Ford as he did celebratory burnouts, too impatient to complete the cool-down lap before cutting loose.

"He's never seen me win, can you believe that?" the 38-year-old screamed standing in the impromptu Victory Lane on the Martinsville Speedway front stretch, holding young son Cash, named for Johnny Cash. "Give me one of them damn beers!"

He snatched up a can and chugged it on live national television. That's what a man will do when he has had to wait nearly five and a half years to win again. Once considered one of NASCAR's can't-miss young superstars, his ninth career win came 190 races after his eighth, the third-longest streak between victories in Cup Series history. During the time since his Oct. 13, 2012, victory at Charlotte, he finished second an excruciating six times, including a near-miss at Martinsville the following spring. On Monday he led 215 laps, more than his previous 159 races combined. The last time he rode up front for anywhere close to that much was in 2010.

But the slump that Bowyer busted on Monday was about much more than statistics. Buried among all the oh-fer numbers were two of the biggest NASCAR controversies in recent memory, one being arguably the worst in the sport's history. His last shoulda-won Martinsville effort in the spring of 2012 placed him in the center of a bizarre late-race incident that cost Hendrick Motorsports a shot at a milestone victory and Jeff Gordon a shot at his elusive fifth championship. Later that season, Gordon exacted revenge in the ugliest moment of his career. The enduring image of the weekend is a frantic Bowyer sprinting from his wrecked car into the Phoenix International Raceway garage to join a brawl between the two crews. ("I didn't handle that well, at all," Bowyer said of those moments on Monday afternoon.)

In NASCAR's regular-season finale at Richmond in 2013, Bowyer appeared to spin late in the race to help then-teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the postseason field. Over the following days, NASCAR handed out unprecedented penalties, rearranged the list of postseason participants, and sent Bowyer on an embarrassing apology tour with the national sports media. Over the following months and years, his team, Michael Waltrip Racing lost sponsors, lost Truex, and by 2015 had been shuttered.

Thusly began Bowyer's slow, painful slide into irrelevancy. Even after Tony Stewart hired Bowyer as his post-retirement heir, he was forced to spend one season driving for low-budget HScott Motorsports. In 2016, he scored three top-10s in 36 races and finished 27th in the championship standings. Even after moving into Stewart's No. 14 ride, the results didn't come rushing back, with 13 top-10s and an 18th-place finish in the Cup standings.

The most notoriously jovial guy in the garage was anything but. Conversations that used to be instant fun were now surefire downers. When the first year at Stewart-Haas didn't come together quick enough, he and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz fought openly, even publicly. Last fall when asked if he needed a new crew chief going forward, Bowyer didn't exactly jump to the mechanic's defense.

"You start to question whether you can do it or not," Bowyer admitted Monday evening, choking back tears. "To fix that, to do it here at this place, it means a lot."

Few had their eyes on Bowyer when Monday's race began. He qualified ninth and didn't take the lead until lap 285 of the 500-lap event. He only relinquished that lead when he nearly ran himself out of fuel prior to a visit on pit road. He surrendered that lead to eventual runner-up Kyle Busch. It lasted only one lap. "There are certain guys you have your eye on when a race starts, the guys that you expect to be up front all day. [Bowyer] was not one of those guys," Busch confessed. "But give them credit. Once they got there, they stayed there."

Now the question for Bowyer will be if he can stay here, continue looking like the title contender he once was, so many years ago. Monday's win practically ensures a spot in this fall's playoff field. A place he hasn't been since 2015.

The only drivers who suffered longer between-win droughts were Bill Elliott (226) and Truex (218). They both experienced career revivals after their famine-ending wins. Truex has weathered lengthy slumps twice. Ending the latest one, the one forced upon him after the 2013 Richmond debacle, eventually led to his current status as the defending Cup Series champion.

"You won't find anyone in this garage who isn't happy for Clint Bowyer," Truex said of his former teammate, before jogging over to the victory celebration to congratulate him in person. "Any race car driver, no matter how great their career might've been, we've all been there, thinking, 'Man, am I ever going to win again?' So, when someone does what Clint just did, we all feel that."

"It just felt right, that today was going to be our day," Bowyer said to the assembled media one hour after the win, Cash sitting on his lap for a moment, then bolting. The father talked, for the first time in a half decade, of feeling like a man who believes he can once again be a yearlong Cup contender. "This is a year that's starting to shape up to what I'm accustomed to."

He said he'd already texted Tony Stewart, his boss, friend, and the driver he replaced, to thank him for this career second wind ... and win.

"I told him, racing's fun again. This s--- is fun again."