Gutsy call pays off for Clint Bowyer, crew chief in win at Michigan

Clint Bowyer celebrates after winning the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Clint Bowyer couldn't hold his elation, and not just because he won Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

He loved the fact that his crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, a conservative-minded engineer, opted to gamble with a two-tire pit stop following the second stage of the FireKeepers Casino 400. He thought it was a great gamble considering the rain could come at any moment, and it allowed him to restart ahead of those who took four fresh tires.

"That was a gutsy call," Bowyer said. "I was so proud of Mike for making that call. That's uncharacteristic for him -- pulling no punches, he's not a gambler.

"He has so many strong suits. He's such a good engineer, such a smart person. That's how smart he is. He knows not to gamble. Smart people don't gamble."

Bowyer realized the boldness of the decision when he left pit road and no other driver had taken just two tires. One driver, Kasey Kahne, stayed out, but a lap before the race resumed, Kahne opted to pit.

And Bowyer admitted he wasn't sure of the decision at that point.

"I was a mile ahead [leaving the pits] when I looked in the mirror -- everybody behind me is on four tires," Bowyer said. "[I'm thinking that] I don't know what you're looking at but there's an army of people on pit road that saw the same forecast, same radar, they took four."

So Bowyer did the only thing he could do -- hold off Kevin Harvick for as long as he could. That lasted about three-plus green-flag laps before a caution and then rain ended things with 67 laps left, allowing Bowyer to steal a victory in a race where he only led after that gutsy call.

"I felt like we had enough speed, we were running comparable lap times to the leader, and most of the time faster than third and fourth," Bugarewicz said.

"It's just a track-position game at that point, right? You always see the first two cars are the fastest in the field. I felt like if we could get the lead, we had a chance to hold them off. Seemed like it worked out."

Harvick led a race-high 49 laps and seemed in control when he took four tires on the end-of-stage pit stop.

"[They] just gambled, rolled the dice that the rain must have been going to come, and he was able to keep me on the bottom there just by a little bit on the restart," Harvick said. "Then it was just going to take me a few laps to work back by.

"But he did a good job hanging onto his car, and the gamble paid off for him."

So he's not mad that win No. 6 (of the 2018 season) didn't come on a day when he led a race-high 49 laps?

"I don't control the weather," Harvick said.

While Bowyer knows he kinda stole one Sunday, here's the thing: Holding off Harvick for three laps -- even if on the fourth, it likely would have been a different story -- is enough to make someone feel as if they earned a victory more than stole one.

Bowyer, after all, sat second at the end of the second stage, the point that determines whether a race is official if NASCAR rules that it can't continue due to rain or darkness or track conditions.

Stewart-Haas Racing's Kurt Busch finished third, giving the organization a 1-2-3 finish in accomplishing a feat no team had done in nearly 10 years. The last to do it was Roush Fenway in September 2008.

The organization led a Ford near-sweep of the top eight spots, with the exception of Kyle Busch, in a Toyota, finishing fourth. Kyle Busch said he had nothing for the SHR cars, indicating those team's entries had more power on the straightaways.

"It doesn't matter how sharp your knife is -- you ain't going to beat a gun fight," Kyle Busch said.

But maybe just as important as the SHR 1-2-3 finish showing the strength of its teams and Fords, it showed that the organization did the right thing in keeping Bugarewicz and Bowyer together after a sometimes-testy initial year in 2017.

Bowyer, an excitable sort, and Bugarewicz seem much more comfortable with each other this year. They won Martinsville together. And now they laughed all the way to Victory Lane, with Bowyer so juiced that his crew chief went out on a limb.

"That's part of growing, blossoming as a crew chief, being one of the elite," Bowyer said. "He did that today.

"I was so happy for him because that's something that the two years we've been together I haven't really seen a lot, for various reasons, some of them make sense, some of them don't."

It might have been nice to let Bowyer continue to heap praise on his crew chief. But the media maybe has no heart -- at the end of his session with reporters, the news was broken to Bowyer: The call wasn't a gamble.

Bugarewicz had told the media earlier: "I was thinking, 'Man, probably a lot of these leaders are going to do two to keep the track position. They got to be seeing it, too.'

"When we were coming on pit road, I was 100 percent sure two tires was the right call."

Sorry, Clint. Your crew chief was just trying to do what he expected everyone else to do.

"He was wrong!" Bowyer said when finding out the philosophy. "He was drastically wrong on that."

Bowyer does have some advice for Bugarewicz, though. If his decisions ever turn into unintentional gambles, ride the wave.

"I wouldn't have said a word [about it not being gutsy] -- I would have said, 'You damn right I made that [gutsy] call. That was my call, I won the race,'" Bowyer said. "That's what I would have come in here and tell you.

"When you get to bed tonight, your wife goes, 'Did you know that nobody else took two tires?' No, babe, no way."

So does Bowyer want a gambling crew chief? Or just one whose decisions just look like gambles?

"I don't know," Bowyer said. "Now I'm scared. You got a guy that's never gambled before, now we're calling the hotline on the back of the card? It's what you're scared of. Who knows? Maybe it will work for us."