Clint Bowyer needed to get away from it all last week. Headed to California from Kansas, Bowyer stopped in New Mexico to go elk hunting with Elliott Sadler and Bobby Labonte. Climbing around in the mountains wasn't exactly relaxing, but the trip served its purpose. Bowyer left behind the controversy over the illegality of his car, the questions and the frustration of finishing 25th at Dover and 15th at Kansas, which made his tainted win at New Hampshire look suspicious.
Bowyer's hunting trip was successful in every way. "Really neat environment," Bowyer said. "Beautiful terrain, crawling up on mountains. I'm telling you, it was a workout. It was one of the hardest things that I've ever done was pack that elk out of there. It was hell for a day."
Richard Childress Racing's final appeal on the No. 33's penalties was heard by NASCAR chief appellate officer John Middlebrook on Tuesday and the 150-point reduction that took him out of the Chase was upheld. Bowyer wasn't holding his breath that he would get those points back.
"I didn't even know about the deal [appeal]," Bowyer said. "I put it behind me last week in Kansas. I went on an elk hunt, my phone didn't work for three days."
Bowyer found out Middlebrook's decision on Wednesday when he was headed for Las Vegas, where the hunting party joined up with Kasey Kahne and Dale Jarrett. More fun was ahead.
"We went to Vegas and enjoyed ourselves for another couple of days," Bowyer said. "It was a hell of a good week. I got to enjoy it with some racers, just a good group of good guys. You normally don't get the chance during the season to enjoy some of the guys you race against. These are the best characters in the business, so I really, really enjoyed this week and had a lot of fun. I didn't worry about anything, to be honest with you.
"Sometimes it's neat to be able to just go out and get away completely, and I'm talking like completely away and enjoy yourself. It was a well-needed week."
Reality returned on Friday at California's Auto Club Speedway, where Bowyer began working with interim crew chief Scott Miller. NASCAR's penalty included a four-race suspension of Shane Wilson, Bowyer's crew chief on the No. 33 car since the start of the 2009 season.
"I didn't know what to expect to be honest with you, without our crew chief and everything," Bowyer said. "I've never been without a crew chief and never been in that situation."
Bowyer's motivation in the Chase hasn't been weakened by NASCAR's penalties. The No. 33 team has been labeled a cheater by the governing body. Bowyer wants to prove them wrong, that his win at New Hampshire was legitimate, by winning races with legal cars in the second half of the Chase. He came close at California, finishing second, but it wasn't enough.
"I'm happy to get things turned around," Bowyer said. "After the last two weeks we had, I'm frustrated. I want to redeem myself. We're a race-winning team and we need to go out and prove that last one [New Hampshire] wasn't a hoax.
"A good run was crucial to our race team after what happened with our win, but I was frustrated that I didn't get a win. I really, really wanted to win just to get the record straight on what had happened with the last win. We're capable of winning races and if we keep doing what we did (at California), we're going to win another one."
You can feel Bowyer's pain. The opening three weeks of the Chase had gone from glory to dust. The fourth almost brought vindication.
Bowyer led 40 laps at California. He was in command with 17 laps to go and probably headed for the most satisfying win of his career when the caution came out. The lead lap cars pitted and everyone but Paul Menard and Regan Smith took four tires. Menard and Smith took two and were on the front row of the doublewide restart.
Smith was on the inside, with Bowyer behind him. Menard was outside, with Stewart behind. Menard's restart jumped him in front of Smith and Stewart used the momentum and a faster car to sweep into the lead on the outside.
Bowyer never had a chance. He was bottled up on the inside behind Smith and fell to fifth. Bowyer recovered to second with a last-lap pass of Jimmie Johnson, but Stewart was gone, headed for victory.
Bowyer thought the timing of the caution that he thought cost him the race was, putting it mildly, curious. Cars had been running around it for a while without trouble.
"I saw it for a long time," Bowyer said. "I mean, hell, it's part of it. What do you say?"
It could be theorized, by those who believe in conspiracies, that NASCAR didn't want Bowyer to win because he's out of the Chase, or maybe for other reasons, and that's why the caution came out when none seem needed. Bowyer was asked if NASCAR had been making a point by throwing the caution in the post-race media conference.
"That's a good question," Bowyer answered.
Sitting next to him, Jimmie Johnson offered: "Have fun with that one."
Bowyer: "No comment."
Bowyer showed his intelligence by keeping what was seething inside private.
He doesn't need another controversy with NASCAR.
Bowyer's second at California proved he's capable of winning in the next six races with Miller, who will run the show for three of them. Miller is director of competition at Childress and was crew chief for Jeff Burton from 2005 to late last season. Bowyer, 12th in the points, won't have to drive conservatively for points in any of the remaining races. He has nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking chances and it may be to his advantage if he's got a car that's in the hunt.