This Friday afternoon, NASCAR’s consummate pitchman and ultimate shill Michael Waltrip will address the press corps to make the announcement that Clint Bowyer will be joining Michael Waltrip Racing – expanding the team from two to three drivers for the 2012 Sprint Cup season and beyond.
Waltrip will smile a lot, crack some lame quips and generally pump up the assembled crowd as to why this move is a great one for his team, which he began almost a decade ago but only went full-time with in 2007 thanks to factory support from then-newbie manufacturer Toyota. (For the record, Jerry Nadeau drove the Aaron’s-sponsored Michael Waltrip machine to a 37th-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway, completing the organization’s first race back in June, 2002.) Waltrip will no doubt wax lyrical about the revamped driver lineup, with Bowyer joining Martin Truex, Jr. and the ever amiable David Reutimann for what will be a sixth straight season of full-time competition at the sport’s highest echelon for MWR.
And on one level Mikey would be, for once, absolutely right. Clint Bowyer is an accomplished driver with a solid history of success at the Sprint Cup level. In fact, if you combine the career statistics of Reutimann (164 races) and Truex (218 races), Bowyer’s numbers achieved in significantly fewer events – 210, to be precise – are better. Bowyer has more wins, more top 5’s, more top 10’s, and more laps led not to mention a third-place overall finish (2007), a fifth-place (2008) and a tenth-place effort (2010) in the Chase standings. Compare that to MWR itself, which hasn’t made the Chase once during its entire existence and you can see why they thought this guy would be a great catch. And although it’s a frivolous, flippant point to make Bowyer also crossed the finish line of the “epic 2007 Daytona 500”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGpDhABd2Fk on his roof and on fire. I don’t care who you are; that’s badass on anyone’s personal highlight reel.
Back to the point at hand… Bowyer’s move to MWR is at best, one of expediency. Out of contract at season’s end, as 2011 progressed Bowyer’s fate had looked increasingly unlikely to lie with the Richard Childress Racing organization – the only team he has ever raced for at the Cup level. With sponsorship also an issue, free agents such as Mark Martin and Brian Vickers on the market, the ever-improving grandson of the team owner, Austin Dillon, and stalled contract talks, Bowyer’s departure became something of a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless, less than a month ago Childress was still speaking of the possibility of Bowyer staying: a myth that clearly has not materialized into longshot reality.
RCR veteran and longtime teammate Kevin Harvick, in fact, has already released a quote recognizing the Bowyer-Childress divorce is but a mere formality at this point.
“I think Clint was a good asset for us because he was competitive on a weekly basis, so he brings something to the table,” said Harvick. “I’ve been around Clint since 2004 or 2005. He’s a good friend of mine and we’ve been through a lot together, so it’s not something [Bowyer’s impending departure] that I look at that’s real positive.”
And in many ways, this last year has been anything but positive for the Emporia, Kansas native. Much of it can be traced back to the first Chase race of last year when Bowyer eviscerated the field, leading 177 of 300 laps, on the way to a dominant victory. But the car failed post-race inspection and Bowyer was docked 150 points, his title tilt tossed away just when it looked as if it would bloom. The penalty stood through multiple appeals, even after a famous press conference when Bowyer brandished a quarter to demonstrate how minute the infraction, indeed actually was. A victory at Talladega – his fourth career win – in race seven of the Chase was a mere consolation prize by comparison, the last highlight of a bumpy ending where the No. 33 never quite fully recovered. This year, they’ve just never strung the good performances together and as a result, Bowyer missed the Chase for a second time in three years.
As much as Bowyer will miss RCR, some make the argument a new start might also be just what he needs. MWR has suffered through a difficult year in 2010, but future success is not out of the question by any stretch of the imagination. Teams take time to build, and Bowyer might be signing up at just the right moment. Of course, that’s the optimistic view – as NASCAR is a sport where you just have to keep looking forward – but the chances are leaving RCR might just signal the last time that Bowyer will drive a machine capable of winning a championship. That’s not to say MWR won’t win a Cup title one day; it just doesn’t look like it’s coming anytime soon. This stat is all you need to know: Truex, Reutimann, and JTG-allied Bobby Labonte combine for just one more top-10 finish (12) than Bowyer has this season (11) during one of the worst years of his career for RCR.
I’ll leave the last word to RCR team principal Richard Childress, who noted, “For us, it just didn’t seem that we could get everything worked out” while the negotiations were ongoing but seemed destined for Bowyer heading straight for that exit door. “We just… Clint’s still a good friend. I want the best for him.”
Trouble is, the chances are the best bet for Bowyer was staying put with RCR.
*Two quick points to finish,* starting with Ed Carpenter’s heartwarming victory at Kentucky in the penultimate race of the IndyCar season. Not only was it a maiden win for Carpenter, who dueled wheel-to-wheel with three-time champion Dario Franchitti across the final, frenetic laps, the victory also secured an inaugural first race triumph for Sarah Fisher and Sarah Fisher Racing. Congratulations to all involved on an incredible day for Fisher – one of the true open-wheel stalwarts.
And finally, what an “unbelievable save by A.J. Allmendinger”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydHealnKiVU in the early laps at Dover this past weekend. What I like about this moment is that it shows you just how good these drivers are and how infinitesimal the margins are in NASCAR. Had he slammed the wall or been hit by oncoming traffic, A.J.’s day would have gone downhill fast. As it was, he recovered and secured a credible seventh-place finish for a seventh top 10 on the season with resurgent Richard Petty Motorsports.
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