Clint Bowyer, the pride of Emporia, Kans., was on virtually nobody’s preseason list of "drivers most likely to win the 2009 Sprint Cup championship." But five weeks into the season, the top-performing driver with RCR -- on its newest team, no less -- finds himself as one of the top contenders in this year's points Chase. And why wouldn't he be? After all, Bowyer has finished in the top five in points each of the previous two years on the circuit.

Thompson in Turn 5: Clint Bowyer Still Flying Under The Radar

Clint Bowyer, the pride of Emporia, Kans., was on virtually nobody’s preseason list of “drivers most likely to win the 2009 Sprint Cup championship.” But five weeks into the season, the top-performing driver with RCR — on its newest team, no less — finds himself as one of the top contenders in this year’s points Chase. And why wouldn’t he be? After all, Bowyer has finished in the top five in points each of the previous two years on the circuit.

But after switching to the brand new No. 33 Chevrolet in the offseason, most of the media and the fans in the stands didn’t see it that way. Considering Bowyer has since made them eat their words — he’s third in points, just 79 behind Jeff Gordon with three top 10s in five starts — you’d think the driver would be boisterous about trying to change his image. However, Bowyer seems to be OK with his underappreciated status. Prior to last Sunday’s running of the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer acknowledged that he is cognizant of the fact that many have little faith in him even qualifying for the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship – let alone winning it.

“It seems like over the last few years that I’ve been the one they said couldn’t make the Chase and won’t make the Chase, and it was again this year,” said Bowyer, now competing in his fourth Sprint Cup season. “That’s fuel for the fire, absolutely. That makes you go out and work harder and go that extra mile to make sure that you prove them wrong. I love it.”

A tug of his tie-knot and a bug-eyed declaration that “I tell ya… I get no respect,” (a la Rodney Dangerfield) could have just as well drove home the point that Bowyer was making. The truth is, despite continued success the “Bowyer-mania” train has still not left the station.

Instead Bowyer, who’s been as high as second in championship points and left Thunder Valley ranked third (after a 13th-place finish) continues to be relegated to the back pages week in and week out. His story of success with a new team has been overshadowed by stories chronicling the struggles that such drivers as future Hall of Fame inductee Mark Martin and youngster Joey Logano have had with their transitions into new rides. And that’s not to mention the considerable amount of positive attention given to two-time champion Tony Stewart, driving this season for his own team and off to a solid start to the season. Indeed, Stewart’s performance currently has him sitting seventh — four positions in the rankings behind Bowyer.

Of course, the workmanlike results that have already become the 29-year-old Bowyer’s trademark are no match for the shoutouts from Stewart… or the controversial Kyle Busch. But while Busch’s prowess for winning gives him kudos by both the print and TV media, it’s easy to forget he’s only fourth in the driver standings — ranked one position behind Bowyer. And if it’s not Kyle in the news, it’s former champion Kurt Busch, who has one win but just a three-point advantage over Bowyer for the runner-up position in points.

As you can see, there seems to be any number of NASCAR-related stories concerning other drivers that are deemed more noteworthy to report on than Bowyer’s yeoman effort over the first five races of 2009. After all, attempting to analyze why NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is mired in 19th place in the Sprint Cup driver standings while driving for arguably the best-equipped stable in the sport is of paramount importance. Likewise, enough cannot be spoken or written about when it comes to the series point leader and four-time champ Gordon’s continued winless streak.

What the heck, you’re saying. Kurt and Kyle Busch, Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, Logano, Martin and Stewart are amongst the biggest names the sport has, right?

Bowyer is a pretty good driver… but hardly among NASCAR’s elite?

Well, there is a legitimate argument that Bowyer is certainly worthy of mention as one of the biggest NASCAR stars of today. After a runner-up finish to Martin Truex Jr. for the then-Busch Series championship in his first full-time effort in NASCAR’s second-tier series in 2005, Bowyer was fast-tracked to Sprint Cup in 2006. Following a solid rookie performance in which he nabbed 11 top-10 finishes and finished second in the Rookie of the Year race behind Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (and ahead of Truex), it has been all top-five finishes in points for the former late model and modified ace ever since.

Bowyer’s 2007 sophomore season was, by anyone’s estimate… great! The year ended with the RCR upstart finishing third in the Chase, trailing only champion Jimmie Johnson and Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon, who leads all active drivers in career race wins.

Third in points in only his second season in the sport’s toughest series was certainly impressive, but has been little more than a footnote in the NASCAR universe ever since. That’s despite the fact Bowyer was able to back up his 2007 Cinderella story with another top-five finish in the standings last year — he wound up fifth, sandwiched between RCR teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. Reigning Cup champion Johnson is the only other driver to finish that high the last two seasons; but being in such exclusive company has not seemed to elevate Bowyer’s star status much, either.

You’d think adding the 2008 Nationwide Series championship to his resume on top of everything else would seem to establish Bowyer as a top-notch, high profile driver, one deserving of mention as the race proceeds and he progresses through the field. Certainly, it should make him one of the odds-on favorites moving forward, too important not to take note of both on and off the track?

So far, that has not been the case.

Popularity, or the lack thereof does not seem to matter to Bowyer, however. The driver is a Saturday night warrior that has reached the pinnacle of the sport the “old-fashioned way”… he earned it through his share of busted knuckles and late night tows home from tracks throughout America. He seems genuinely grateful to be where he is and intent on staying there for the foreseeable future.

Though the extent of Bowyer’s immense talent as a stock car driver may not have been fully realized as of yet by the racing community, his abilities do seem to be fully understood by team owner Richard Childress. Following last season’s successful campaign in the No. 07 Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet, Bowyer was yanked from his ride in favor of newcomer Casey Mears to satisfy sponsor concerns and ordered to fill the seat of Childress’s new fourth team.

But a true startup team, complete with a new crew chief, Shane Wilson, has been no problem. Bowyer has piloted the No. 33 General Mills Chevrolet to three top-10 and five top-20 finishes in the first five races, completing goal number one of establishing the new team in the Top 35 (the team bought points from someone else to start the year in a locked-in spot). Now, RCR and Bowyer’s next mission is at hand… more wins in their short-term future while building towards a first career Cup championship over the long-term.

“When your boss says this is what you’re going to do [team change], it’s pretty much what you’re going to do,” said Bowyer prior to qualifying at Bristol Motor Speedway. “It definitely was nerve-wracking. You just don’t ever know. You always know what you’ve got in the bank with what you had. It’s hard to let that go, but maybe it was time for a change, and it’s really opened my eyes in the beginning part of this season with a completely new team.

“Change isn’t always bad, and I think it’s proven to be pretty good for me… I had a fun time and a great success with [crew chief] Gil [Martin] and them [No. 07 team], but it wasn’t good enough. We weren’t winning championships, and we had three years together.”

One can’t help but wonder if even winning a championship would earn the low-key and unassuming Bowyer star status. Possibly; but it’s more likely recognition will come slowly unless there’s a major change in the way he conducts himself both on and off the track.

In the meantime, when all popularity and hype are set aside… Bowyer is still one of the top five drivers in NASCAR!

It’s just not that many people have figured it out quite yet.

And… that’s my view from Turn 5.

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