Clint Bowyer is perpetually happy whenever he comes to Kansas Speedway, feeling as if he's at home just a short drive from where the Emporia native first achieved racing stardom.
His smile came a little less carefree on Wednesday.
Bowyer squeezed into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship last weekend at Richmond, and joined a dozen other drivers for testing at Kansas ahead of this weekend's race at Chicagoland Speedway. But when he slips out of the car and gets a spare moment to himself — a rarity, these days — he can't help but wonder what next year has in store for him.
Last month, Michael Waltrip Racing announced it would shutter at the end of the season, and Bowyer was released from his contract with two years still remaining on it.
"When I'm in the car, I'm worried and thinking about the things we're here to do," Bowyer said between sessions. "When you're not, you get out and look at your phone, and your brother is calling, you're waiting answers, and you have decisions to make outside the car, too."
Bowyer stops to rub the sleep — and maybe the stress — from his eyes.
"It's a balancing act, but it's not like it's fogging your judgment," he said. "It's been a long week. I'm kind of worn out. But it's all very important, whether you're testing for the Chase or when we come back to Kansas or looking at the future."
The test at Kansas is valuable for the drivers in championship contention.
To start with, Chicagoland is a similar mile-and-a-half design, which means some of the lessons learned Wednesday can be applied to this weekend. For another, half of the 10-race Chase takes place on 1 1/2-mile intermediate tracks, including back-to-back races at Charlotte and Kansas in the second round, Texas in the third round and Homestead for the finale.
The weather may change. The track surfaces are all a bit different. There are some tweaks to the layouts. But there is enough in common that teams are able to fine-tune a bit.
"Collecting data is really the primary goal," six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said.
Johnson was joined by Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and J.J. Yeley on Monday and Tuesday for some additional testing for Goodyear, which is trying to develop a tire with next year's low-downforce package in mind. The track was open to one car from each team Wednesday.
"I had a lot of fun with the lower downforce package," Johnson said. "Found myself behind a few cars and found the cars worked really well in traffic. Found and identified some sets of tires that worked really well, started with a lot of grip, had a lot of fall-off. It was good."
Johnson has none of the questions that Bowyer has about his future. He just signed a two-year extension to remain with Hendrick Motorsports earlier this week.
Bowyer is confident that things will work out for him, too. Making the Chase was a positive step in what has been a largely frustrating season, and Bowyer is optimistic that there has been some life injected into an organization that only has a couple of months left.
"Obviously a storm that we're fighting, trying to figure out what's going to happen with everybody," he said. "There's a lot of great people involved with my race team and organization, and there's a lot going on behind the scenes, trying to get it all ironed out."