The finish, which came in Bowyer’s 358th series start, was his first of the season and his first in Cup since last fall at Charlotte, 38 races ago.
2015 has been a season of beginnings and ends for the Kansas veteran. Bowyer opened his fourth season with Michael Waltrip Racing with a 7th-place run in he Daytona 500, locked in the three-wide battle for position behind race winner Joey Logano. Just four races later, however, he had dropped to 20th in points with four-straight finishes outside the Top 20. He steadily improved over the summer, picking up three top-ten runs in June including a season-best 3rd at Sonoma. But in late July, while in the thick of a battle for a Chase berth, the news broke that MWR had lost its partner, Rob Kauffman, and the two-car team would be ceasing operations at the end of the year.
Without a win, but a 10th-place finish at Richmond in September, Bowyer still secured a berth in the 2015 Chase, his first playoff run since 2013. He came home 19th in the Chase opener at Chicago - second-worst among the sixteen contenders - but was then docked 25 driver points for an unapproved rear end suspension discovered during pre-qualifying inspection. The penalty dealt a fatal blow to Bowyer’s title chances, and he was eliminated after the first cutoff race at Dover. A few days later, it was announced that Bowyer and sponsor 5-Hour Energy would move to HScott Motorsports in 2016 in preparation to replace a retiring Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017. As MWR has continued to wind down operations, the effort has turned to getting as many good finishes as possible.
Bowyer started the Martinsville weekend with the 9th-fastest time in the opening practice session and secured the 17th-fastest time in qualifying, just missing the cut for the final round with a lap of 97.714 mph. On Saturday, Bowyer was just 22nd in the first session, then climbed to 11th in Happy Hour.
Starting last on Sunday was Alex Kennedy in the black #33 Little Joe’s Auto Chevrolet for Circle Sport, the California driver 33rd in his Martinsville debut in March. During the opening 7 laps run under a green/yellow start due to rain, Kennedy was joined by Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart, who both went to backup cars after crashes in qualifying and practice, respectively. When the race finally went green on Lap 8, Kennedy followed Kahne and Stewart through the field, dropping Timmy Hill to 43rd in Premium Motorsports’ unsponsored #62 Chevrolet. Around Lap 28, Hill became the first driver to lose a lap, and he held the spot until Lap 82, when Trevor Bayne made an unscheduled green-flag stop in the #6 AdvoCare Ford, costing 3 laps.
Hill’s Chevrolet fought a persistent oil leak in the first quarter of the race, trailing whisps of smoke that soon drew the attention of NASCAR officials. On Lap 84, Hill retook last from Bayne when he pulled into the garage to allow the team to make repairs. Joining Hill at the bottom of the field was Brett Moffitt, whose #34 Dockside Logistics Ford came in for a new battery on Lap 85. On Lap 102, Moffitt returned to the track in 42nd, and on Lap 114, Hill also came back, 33 laps down and still in 43rd.
On Lap 128, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was struggling with damage to the nose of his #17 Zest Ford suffered in a chain-reaction accident on Lap 114. On Lap 128, Stenhouse was 5 laps down when the car veered into the wall entering Turn 3, drawing the fifth caution of the afternoon. The lengthy repairs to Stenhouse’s right-front cost several more laps, and he took last from Hill on Lap 155. Stenhouse’s girlfriend Danica Patrick, also involved in the Lap 114 accident, lost her temper with David Gilliland and his #38 Jerry Cook Tribute Ford. The first of these two fender-benders came on Lap 158, and she pulled into the garage on Lap 174 before dropping to 41st on Lap 180. Stenhouse, still last, returned to the track on Lap 189, followed by Patrick on Lap 192, her #10 GoDaddy Chevrolet just 8 laps from taking 42nd from Timmy Hill. If things stayed the same, Stenhouse would score his first Cup Series last-place finish with Hill in 42nd and Patrick in 41st.
However, just before Stenhouse and Patrick returned, Bowyer ran into trouble. On Lap 187, running on the high side of a three-wide battle with Kyle Larson and David Ragan entering Turn 3, the two cars to Bowyer’s inside made contact and sent him spinning into the outside wall. Though Bowyer managed to get his car rolling again under the ninth caution of the afternoon, he immediately pulled into the garage. The Michael Waltrip Racing crew found the damage too severe to continue, and the #15 never returned to the track. On Lap 201, Bowyer fell to 40th and was listed as “out” soon after. He fell to last on Lap 256, taking the spot from Stenhouse.
Patrick and Stenhouse finished 40th and 39th, respectively. Patrick tangled with Gilliland a second time on Lap 430 and chased him to the apron, destroying the nose of her Chevrolet. Although she returned to the track, the damage proved too substantial, and she exited the race with crash damage in the final laps. Between Bowyer and Patrick in the Bottom Five were 42nd-place Ryan Preece and 41st-place Kyle Fowler, who were both making their second Cup Series starts. Preece’s #98 Vydox Plus Ford for Premium Motorsports caught air when he ran over the grass entrance to pit road on Lap 137 while Fowler’s pink #32 Keen Parts.com / CorvetteParts.net Ford bashed the wall on Lap 379 following brake failure. Preece returned to the race in the closing stages, 135 laps back, while Fowler retired.
*This was the first last-place finish for the #15 in a Cup race at Martinsville since April 26, 1992, when Geoff Bodine’s #15 Motorcraft Ford - fielded by Hall of Famer Bud Moore’s single-car operation - lost the engine after 104 laps of the Hanes 500.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #15-Clint Bowyer / 185 laps / crash
42) #98-Ryan Preece / 365 laps / running
41) #32-Kyle Fowler / 373 laps / brakes
40) #10-Danica Patrick / 391 laps / crash
39) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 423 laps / running
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Landon Cassill (4)
2nd) Alex Bowman (3)
3rd) Aric Almirola, Michael Annett, Kasey Kahne, J.J. Yeley (2)
4th) Justin Allgaier, A.J. Allmendinger, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Jeb Burton, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Joey Gase, David Gilliland, Timmy Hill, Sam Hornish, Jr., Bobby Labonte, Brian Scott, Tony Stewart, Cole Whitt, Josh Wise (1)
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Hillman Smith Motorsports (4)
2nd) BK Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, HScott Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing (3)
3rd) Go FAS Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Phil Parsons Racing / Premium Motorsports (2)
4th) Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Childress Racing / Circle Sport, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Wood Brothers Racing (1)
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (18)
2nd) Ford (10)
3rd) Toyota (5)