Clint Bowyer approached Richard Childress in midsummer with a sponsor in hand (5-Hour Energy) to support him in the 2012 season. The Hall of Fame NASCAR team owner turned down the offer from a driver that he discovered in the minor leagues and brought to the Sprint Cup Series.
Bowyer's backing was worth an estimated $10 million, and when RCR said no, he took his talent and sponsorship to Michael Waltrip Racing. 5-Hour Energy will back Bowyer, who has made the Chase in three of his six full Cup seasons, at MWR for 24 races next season.
It's commonplace these days, with the high cost of running a 36-race schedule plus the Daytona preliminary and Sprint All-Star races, for cars to share primary sponsors. Childress had sufficient time and a Chase-quality driver so he should have had no trouble selling the rest of the package. It's stunning that he didn't even try.
"I'd say [the decision to leave RCR] came when we went and talked to them about the 5-Hour Energy deal and they still couldn't put a [full-schedule] deal together," Bowyer said. "So, I said, 'Well, all right, we'll go somewhere else.' That probably ultimately led to leaving RCR."
It appears that Childress was never serious about trying to retain Bowyer. That's not a knock of Bowyer's talent. Evidence exists that Childress was clearing the way to bring grandson Austin Dillon into Cup in 2013 or 2014.
Dillon, 21, is a good prospect. He has four wins the past two seasons and is leading NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series. Dillon will move up to the Nationwide Series next year. He made his Cup debut at Kansas last Sunday in an RCR-prepared Chevrolet crewed by his Truck team and finished 26th. It probably wasn't a coincidence that Dillon's first race in Cup came on the same weekend Bowyer announced he was leaving. Childress was previewing the future of his organization.
RCR operates the NASCAR-mandated maximum of four Cup teams and Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard are all under multiyear contracts. Bowyer's contract was ending following this season. The timing was right for Childress to make room for Dillon.
Childress shored up his Nationwide program by merging with Kevin Harvick's team this summer, bringing personnel, equipment and sponsorship. He also filled in the gaps on Burton's No. 31 car last week when General Mills announced it was going to be a co-primary sponsor with Wheaties. General Mills has been the primary on Bowyer's car since 2008 with two other brands.
Wouldn't it have been possible to structure a deal with Bowyer? The switch to Burton certainly isn't performance related. Bowyer has finished in front of Burton in the points in each of the past three seasons and has three wins to two in the same period. Bowyer is 13th in the points this season with three top-fives and 12 top-10s. Burton is 24th with one top-10.
Bowyer had spoken openly about his desire to stay with RCR in the spring. He's a loyal guy, appreciative of the life-changing opportunity provided by Childress.
"It just didn't work out," Bowyer said of staying at RCR. "It was a shame. I owe a great deal to Richard [Childress]."
Bowyer didn't have any problems finding another team. Jack Roush and Richard Petty Motorsports, two organizations with a close working relationship, both made offers to bring Bowyer into the Ford camp.
Stability is nice, but sometimes change is better, and Bowyer could benefit from going to the second team and manufacturer, Toyota, of his career. It will expose him to new ideas, new teammates (Martin Truex Jr. and David Reutimann) and new technology.
Kyle Busch's ability to win multiple races per season was inevitable, but look at the impact moving from Hendrick Motorsports to Joe Gibbs Racing had on his career following the 2007 season. Busch had four wins in three full seasons at Hendrick. He's had 19 wins in the three-plus seasons with Gibbs.
Bowyer probably won't win at Busch's pace, but he could win more at Waltrip and he's more consistent than Busch. Bowyer finished ahead of Busch in the Chase in 2007 (third to fifth) and 2008 (fifth to 10th). Neither made the Chase in 2009, and Busch finished in front of Bowyer (eighth to 10th) in 2010 only because of 150-point penalty levied on Bowyer after his win in the Chase opener at New Hampshire.
Bowyer's deal with Waltrip, put together by noted motor sports' attorney Alan Miller, was the final piece to a summer of change for the team. Scott Miller departed his position as competition director at RCR in September to join Waltrip as executive vice president of competition next season. It's thought to be a package deal with Bowyer, and it's one likely cause of tension between Bowyer and Childress this past month.
Waltrip also released former VP of competition Cal Wells in July. Mike Coughlan, its director of vehicle design, departed for the Williams Formula 1 team in May, and engineer Steve Hallam, who also has a F1 background, departed for a job in Australian V8 Supercars.
With Red Bull Racing likely going out of business, Toyota was looking for an A-list driver and wanted Bowyer. Toyota Racing Development is providing additional support to MWR.
"Bob Carter [Toyota Motor Sales, U.S. vice president] runs Toyota and he wanted Clint Bowyer to drive for us really badly and he helped us to get that done," Waltrip said.
MWR has never made the Chase and has only two wins (both by Reutimann) since becoming a full-time Cup team in 2007. With Bowyer, it has a chance to make a huge step forward, and maybe he can even bring Reutimann and Truex along with him.
"I see this as a wonderful opportunity for me to prove myself to everybody," Bowyer said. "When you go into [a team] that has already won many championships and had the success Richard's had, you're just kind of another guy there. If we can go on and put them [MWR] in the Chase and continue to move forward with MWR, you're going to build your brand even better."