It has become something of a tradition in NASCAR that began after gas prices went up, a bunch of superstar drivers went out and a playoff system went in, and people from Southern states stopped driving to stock car races in convoys and caravans.
About a month before each race, NASCAR sends one of its drivers to the host city to boost ticket sales, chat with the media and perform an activity to which he is not accustomed.
Last year before the inaugural South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch was asked to put on hockey skates and shoot pucks with the Golden Knights. The older of Las Vegas’ native racing sons slipped on the blue line and nearly broke his rear spoiler.
Clint Bowyer, Busch’s former Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, got off easy. The only thing Bowyer injured after putting on bowling shoes at the South Point Monday was his pride.
The gregarious leadfoot bowled a couple of frames with Brendan Gaughan, son of South Point owner Michael Gaughan, to create awareness in a charity bowling event in which several NASCAR drivers will compete on Thursday of the Sept. 15 race weekend.
Bowyer’s first ball went straight in the gutter.
It was symbolic of his race the day before at the banked speedway in Michigan’s verdant Irish Hills, and of his season in general recently.
Bowyer crashed and finished 37th among 38 drivers. Now it’s a question of whether he even will qualify for the playoffs and the first of the 10 races that comprise them that he was here to promote.
He started to talk about the significance of the South Point 400, about how crucial it is to get off to a quick start in the races that will decide the NASCAR champion, when he jammed on the brakes.
“Hey, man, I don’t want to talk about any of that,” Bowyer, 40, said in playful exasperation. “I’ve got three races to get my butt in it.”
Only the top 16 drivers in regular-season points advance to the playoffs, while the others will be relegated to trying to stay out of the way. Bowyer’s early out in Michigan has him on the playoff bubble in 16th place, six points ahead of teammate Daniel Suarez and 12 in front of seven-time series champ Jimmie Johnson.
They say objects in a rearview mirror may be closer than they appear. Don’t try telling that to affable Clint Bowyer of Emporia, Kansas.
“I guess I am still in it after the terrible day I had (Sunday),” said the driver of the No. 14 Ford with a sardonic laugh. “I left there so (ticked) off and said, ‘Where are we, 30, 40 points out?’
“We keep having crazy things happen. Two weeks in a row. Watkins Glen, going fine, doing exactly what we need to do. Poof! Flat tire. Everything at Michigan’s going fine, the guys we’re racing (for a playoff berth), I’m looking at hanging 20, 30 points on ’em.
“Good, right? Not good. I wrecked. Back to not good.”
Still riding high
But despite recent hiccups that have turned into a major bellyache, Bowyer said his confidence remains in the top groove.
The next race is on the bullring at Bristol, one of his favorite tracks. The hope is a strong showing in Tennessee will provide him with a points cushion heading into the final two regular-season races at Darlington and Indianapolis that will set the field for the start of the playoffs under the lights in Las Vegas.
Or at least somewhat under the lights.
This year’s South Point 400 will begin at 4 p.m. So when the racing heats up, the sun will have dipped below the grandstands, providing race fans with a respite from 100-degree heat that turned the sprawling terraces into giant frying pans last year.
When the track cools, Bowyer hopes he will be among those racing for the championship instead of trying to stay out of the way. With 15 Cup Series seasons, 492 races, 10 wins, a runner-up championship finish in 2012 and the most easygoing demeanor in the garage, he’s the kind of guy who tends not to let a wreck that wasn’t his fault or a gutter ball get him down.
On his second ball Monday, Clint Bowyer knocked down all 10 pins for a spare.
Then he was treated to lunch at Michael’s, the South Point’s five-star restaurant down the hall from the bowling center. Things already were looking up.
South Point 400 Weekend
— What: South Point 400 NASCAR Cup Series race
— When: 4 p.m. Sept. 15
— Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
— Companion events: World of Westgate 200 NASCAR Truck Series race (6 p.m. Sept. 13); Rhino Pro Truck Outfitters 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series race (4:30 p.m. Sept. 14);
— Tickets: www.lvms.com; 1-800-644-444.