There is no secret that NASCAR is experiencing a “changing of the guard” over the past few years, as many of its popular veterans have either retired or are in the process of gradually exiting the sport. This attrition has left not only team owners scrambling to find competent replacements for the seats of their racecars, but race fans as well looking for their next favorite driver to replace an aging veteran. And in many ways, the process that fans go through in finally settling on a suitable replacement are no less complicated than what car owners are saddled with. Some might argue that picking a favorite driver is even more onerous of a decision for the fan, as owners generally only require a driver to be competent behind the wheel and project an acceptable public persona. Not so for most fan supporters, who, before pledging their personal loyalty and support, in addition to contributing probably more of their hard-earned money in accessorizing their wardrobe, cars and den than they should, have a lengthy and very personalized set of requirements that a prospective new “favorite” driver must meet. That is as it should be, because this is not a “term of contract” agreement between the fan and their No. 1 driver, it is a long-term commitment.
Perhaps Clint Bowyer, presently setting 10th in driver points in only his second full-time season in the Nextel Cup Series, can fill the void that the recent retirement of Rusty Wallace, as well as the gradual and/or soon expected final retirements of popular veterans like Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd or Ken Schrader have or will create for fans of those drivers. Bowyer, a native of Emporia, Kan., possesses some similarities to the group that could legitimately tag him as an “old-school” racer as time passes by and he begins to adjust to life on the Nextel Cup side of the fence. He does not come from an established NASCAR background, yet has ascended to the premier auto racing series in the country through nothing more than talent, grit and determination. It’s certainly a background that many fans find appealing, giving him a leg up as he looks to acquire a solid base of support for a long, bright future in Cup.
Bowyer, in many ways, seems a “throwback” to the racers of yesteryear in that he was a guy that started out in the sport with very little money and even less hope of being anything more than a competitive dirt-track racer around his Kansas home. The Midwest native recently shared a story to national television that illustrates just how far he has come in almost 12 years. In 1996, at 16 years old, and with the help of his father who owned a towing service, he bought a hobby-class car to run at the local ¼-mile dirt bullring. He recalled that, in his first attempt to race, after taking the racecar out for “hot laps,” he brought it back into the pit area and parked with the rest of his novice competitors. He and his father then stood around bewildered as other drivers and their ragtag teams jacked up their low-budget racecars and started adjusting on them for the night’s competition. As Bowyer tells the story, after standing around for a period of time and watching the buzz of activity around them, he turned to his father and said, “Do you think we ought to jack up the car so we at least look like we know what we’re doing?”
The lack of knowledge and resources notwithstanding, Bowyer continued to drive and learn how to build, tune, and maintain racecars. Like so many other “weekend warriors” around the country, Clint worked, went to school and raced, burning the midnight oil in his father’s shop to ready his cars for the following weekend’s events. Though learning racing at the school of “hard knocks,” his perseverance began paying off, as Bowyer began to win more and more frequently at local racetracks. In 2000, he claimed the dirt modified championship at Thunderhill Speedway in Kansas, as well as runner-up in points at Lakeside Speedway. He then bested, at age 22, his previous year’s performance by repeating as Thunderhill’s modified champion, all while winning a second title at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan. Keep in mind Bowyer accomplished this all while working in a hometown body shop and racing “on the side.”
The youngster’s ascension up the motorsports ladder continued, bringing home a second-place finish in national points racing in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series (NWRS) in 2002, as well as racing a modified in Kansas and winning a late model championship in Missouri, all in one year! 2003 saw Bowyer progress his career a little further, racing in two ARCA events and posting a second-place finish in his very first start. 2004 then gave the now 25-year-old three Busch Series races to his credit, including a pole-winning effort in his third career start at the Talladega Superspeedway. By 2005, Bowyer was not just making races, he was winning them; he finished second in the Busch Series championship standings to the much more visible Dale Earnhardt Inc. protege Martin Truex Jr. This season’s rookie campaign in Nextel Cup racing saw Bowyer become the bridesmaid all over again, though; he finished 17th in points and lost out to a phenomenal first-year performance by Denny Hamlin for those same Rookie of the Year honors, all while finishing third in the Busch Series title Chase while running both series full-time.
So, for shoppers preferring a driver that has came up the hard way, working overtime to get to the top, perhaps Bowyer’s “grass roots” background will meet that requirement. He has certainly seemed to scrimp and scrape a sufficient length of time. Just take one look at his hands, and you’ll see he has the scarred knuckles to attest to his willingness to do what needs to be done.
But of course, personality is a key factor in choosing a driver. So far, the driver of the Jack Daniel’s No. 07 seems to have been like the whisky that is advertised on his car claims to have been; allowed to age and mature properly. He doesn’t seem prone to tantrums, nor has he displayed a propensity for mean spiritedness or vindictiveness. In fact, Bowyer seems genuinely relaxed, cool, calm, and collected, with an engaging personality that is neither exceedingly shy or obnoxiously “over the top.” Race fans witnessing the finish of this year’s Daytona 500 got a good glimpse of Bowyer’s demeanor after he crossed the finish line on fire and on his roof, eventually coming to a rest in the infield grass. Many commented on how nonchalant he appeared as he exited the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, casually acknowledging the crowd, seemingly oblivious to the spectacular but perilous wreck that he had just survived.
“Actually, it was pretty cool,” he said of his upside-down experience at 190 mph back then. When questioned about how the events unfolded that led to the scary finish for him, he explained that he thought he was clear of trouble as he raced for the checkered flag and concluded, “But oh well, we were just racing hard. Everybody was going for it. It’s the Daytona 500.”
Bowyer entered Cup racing with very little fanfare, but his steady march toward becoming one of the elite drivers in the series is starting to turn heads. It is now generally accepted that he is overdue for his first Nextel Cup win by both drivers and fans, and that win could come at any time. There is also every reason to believe that he will not stop with just one, and depending on how far the equipment at the vastly improved RCR can take him, he has the ability to become a top-10 fixture. Bowyer may very well be a bargain for anyone needing to pick a new driver, and wanting to get in on the ground floor of a promising driver’s career. The way things have gone so far, it’s a career that could keep a smile on a fans face for many years to come!
For now, Bowyer is locked in a tough fight to remain in the top 12 in points to be eligible for the Chase to the Championship. But should he be successful, look for a stampede of displaced race fans to jump on the Clint Bowyer bandwagon.
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