NASCAR

July 15, 2007

Fast Learner

In his second Cup season, Clint Bowyer is on the brink of winning his first race, while giving RCR an added boost

IF CLINT BOWYER wins his first Nextel Cup race this season, which many in the Cup garage believe will happen, then he may feel better about his seventh-place finish in last Saturday night's Pepsi 400 at Daytona than he did at the time. Though the result fortified his status as a Chase for the Cup contender (he's 11th in the point standings), it was a bitter pill after he had led a race-high 55 laps and been in front following a yellow flag with 13 to go. Before the restart Bowyer had even shouted into his radio, "Nobody's getting past me!" But when racing resumed he got shuffled out of the draft as several drivers went by him, including eventual winner Jamie McMurray. Afterward Bowyer couldn't find solace in numerology—his number 07 Jack Daniels Chevy had finished seventh on 7/7/07—saying, "I'm just really bummed out."

The upside for the 28-year-old Emporia, Kans., native, who is backed by the resurgent Richard Childress Racing operation, is that his potential remains considerable. Three years removed from a stellar short-track career running 30-mile, dirt-oval sprints, Bowyer has exhibited a veteran's car-control skills and is one of only three drivers in the top 12 to have finished all 18 races this season. (Denny Hamlin and Bowyer's teammate, Kevin Harvick, are the others.) "Clint's got less than 200 races on asphalt, period," says crew chief Gil Martin, who in 2005 guided Bowyer to second place in the Busch standings and then 17th in the Cup standings last year. "He's very talented, but making the jump from running 35 laps to 500 miles is the biggest gain he's made."

Bowyer's performance has been a boost to Childress, who two years after being written off as a competitive force has reestablished himself among NASCAR's most formidable owners. As late as 2004 he was staffing teams with the same 20-year veterans who'd guided RCR through its glory days with Dale Earnhardt as its top driver. But after the Intimidator's death in 2001, those old-timers didn't keep up with the technological advances sweeping NASCAR, and RCR won only five races from 2002 through '05. "A lot of people never got over Dale's death," says Mike Dillon, RCR's vice president of competition. In the midst of a winless '04, Childress began to reenergize his operation with new personnel. He hired veteran driver Jeff Burton away from Roush Racing and promoted young talent from his Busch program, including Bowyer and Martin. The moves began paying dividends last season, when Harvick and Burton qualified for the Chase. "Clint's had a great team around him from Day One," says Dillon.

Halfway through this season Childress has three drivers on pace to make NASCAR's postseason; along with Bowyer, Burton is fifth in points, and Harvick is ninth. Only Hendrick Motorsports—with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch among the top 12—can say the same. Last Friday, before Bowyer's perspective was clouded by Saturday night's finish, he recited a lesson he says he has learned from Burton and Harvick: "My day will come, but I'd give up a win to make the Chase."

ONLY AT SI.COM Mark Beech's Power Rankings and Racing Fan columns.

Garage Talk

An insider on one of Cup racing's top teams dishes on the circuit's hottest topics.

1 "Nothing against Dale Earnhardt Jr., but as far as talent goes, Kyle Busch is up here and Junior is down here. At Hendrick next year, they're going to give Junior all the resources that he felt DEI couldn't or wouldn't give him. So he'll get to see how good he really is. He might even win a championship. Kyle, on the other hand, is going to win races and championships no matter where he goes."

2 "Nobody can really put a finger on why Denny Hamlin (above) is having so much success. The best I can tell, it's a whole team effort and he has great communication with his crew chief, Mike Ford. Hamlin may be an overrated driver, but that team is not an overrated team. Its chemistry is perfect."

3 "The reason TV ratings are down this year is because the networks keep pushing back the start times of races. We've made a pitch for the West Coast audience, but the West Coast still isn't tuning in, while the East Coast fan who was a loyal viewer can't watch because he's got stuff to do with his family."

PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCKSTRONG IN 07 Bowyer has finished every race this year and stands 11th in points. TWO PHOTOSNIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK[See caption above] PHOTOWARREN WIMMER/WIREIMAGE.COM (HAMLIN)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)