Clint Bowyer's first season with Michael Waltrip Racing has been steady and solid. Through seven races he had tallied one top-five and three top-10 finishes, and even with a 30th at Phoenix tossed in, the hometown hero from Emporia, Kan., was 10th in the Sprint Cup points heading to Kansas.
Kansas is the race Bowyer wants to win badly, and a broken engine ended that dream this year, leaving him 36th. But it didn't do serious damage to his Chase hopes, dropping him to 11th in the points with 18 races remaining in the regular season.
"It was just a major bummer," Bowyer said after the race. "I'm really upset. I just wish it [engine failure] wouldn't have happened here, anywhere but here. This is the nature of the beast. Unfortunately, this happens from time to time."
The weekend was not a total loss for Bowyer and his No. 15 Toyota. Sponsor 5-Hour Energy had hitched its wagon to Bowyer last year, originally offering a deal in the 20-race range that Bowyer took to then-car owner Richard Childress. Childress turned down the offer, and Bowyer went shopping for a new team, eventually signing with MWR and bringing with him a sponsorship for 25 races. The sponsor was so happy with the exposure this season that it snapped up the rest of the races, with the exception of Talladega on May 6, which already had Aaron's in place.
"It takes dollars to have success on the racetrack and the funding that 5-Hour has provided for our race team has been just that," Bowyer said.
What's interesting about the sponsor's decision to increase its backing of Bowyer is that he's been largely overshadowed by his teammates this year. Martin Truex Jr. has been the star early in the season, with three top-fives and six top-10s in eight races. After leading 173 of 267 laps at Kansas, Truex finished a disappointing second but still rose to second in the points.
Mark Martin, who's driving the No. 55 part-time at 53, has also impressed. He placed third at Texas and has one top-five and three top-10s -- the same amount as Bowyer. Brian Vickers, plucked out of the unemployment line to relieve Martin, created a stir by leading 125 laps and finishing fifth in his MWR debut at Bristol.
Bowyer, with three Chase appearances, including a third-place finish in 2007 and a fifth in 2008, was expected to be Michael Waltrip Racing's top driver this year. But playing second fiddle to Truex won't hurt his confidence or bruise his ego. Bowyer can take comfort in the knowledge he has the same equipment as Truex and, eventually in the long season, he's going to have his day in the sun. It is, after all, only Bowyer's first season with the team and crew chief Brian Pattie.
"I'm happy with where we're at so far," Bowyer said at Kansas prior to the race. "I've been in this sport long enough to know you're bound to have some bumps in the road and we've had that. That's probably what makes me most excited about our season: we've had some adversity. We've had Phoenix with flat tires and had a bad run there.
"Obviously, we've got some areas to work on. You're not winning every race and until you're doing that, you can't say that, but certainly the consistency across the board has been good with all three cars."
Bowyer will have Kansas in the rear view mirror by the time he gets to Richmond for the season's ninth race. It's a track where Bowyer has run well, winning the May race in 2008 and tallying six top-10s and a 10.5 finishing average in 12 starts.
Bowyer is capable of winning Saturday and so is Truex. They might have started the season as one and two on the expectations scale, but MWR has two No. 1s now. Competition between teammates makes everybody better and it's a situation the Waltrip team has developed in a short span of races. It's an enviable position in the Cup garage.