Under-the-radar Bowyer quietly moves up standings
Through five races, Bowyer has two top-5s and a top-10 finish this season
Bowyer is third in the Sprint Cup standings, 79 points behind Jeff Gordon
Bowyer started the season with both a new car and a new crew chief
Of all the early-season surprises in 2009 -- the struggles of Junior and Mark Martin, the resurgence of Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne, and the instant success of Tony Stewart's new team -- perhaps the most under-the-radar is the superlative performance of Clint Bowyer. With three top-10 finishes, including two top-5s, in the first five races, he is in third place in the Cup standings, trailing overall leader Jeff Gordon by just 79 points. And yet, all anybody seems to want to discuss is whether Junior should get a new crew chief.
This wasn't the way things were supposed to go for the fourth-year driver from Emporia, Kans. Sure Bowyer had made the Chase the last two seasons, finishing third and fifth overall, respectively. But this year, team owner Richard Childress booted him out of his ride -- the No. 07 Chevrolet -- in favor of new teammate Casey Mears. Bowyer began the season with both a new car (the No. 33 Chevy), and a new crew chief, Shane Wilson.
Bowyer's old pit boss, Gil Martin, had been instrumental in guiding his driver to the Chase in '07 and '08, mapping out steady-as-she-goes regular-season strategies that, while they kept the team squarely on the bubble for the Chase both times, saw to it that the 29-year-old Bowyer was ready to do his best racing in the postseason. It was a stealth strategy that perhaps cost him a few wins, and ensured that he was never anybody's pick to challenge in the Chase. I was so skeptical of the new outfit that I left Bowyer out of the preseason top-12 rankings I did for the Sports Illustrated.
My mistake. Bowyer has shown this season that he's for real -- that he learned plenty from Martin, as well as from Childress and teammate Kevin Harvick. Everybody at Richard Childress Racing puts a lot of emphasis on taking care of their equipment -- a racing philosophy that comes straight from the top. Indeed, until Harvick was knocked out of the California race after an accident last month, he had gone 81 races -- that's more than two full seasons -- without a DNF. For his part, Bowyer has now gone 78 races without a DNF. He's taking care of his car, and making the most of it.
Bowyer isn't the flashiest guy. He isn't nearly as popular as Junior, or as quotable as Stewart, or as plain-old-fast as Carl Edwards. But he's as steady as they come, and a really wonderful racer. And it's time we started paying attention.
46: Combined starts at Martinsville by Hendrick-Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson
12: Combined victories for Gordon and Johnson at Martinsville
39: Combined top-10 finishes for Gordon and Johnson at Martinsville
The Photo Finish
I can't stop watching this revealing clip of Kyle Busch at the end of the Nationwide race at Bristol last weekend. It's no wonder he's not that popular...with just about everybody. But beyond that, consider that this is a Nationwide race. Not a Cup race. There are some drivers in the Cup series who, in the eyes of their peers, are just happy to be there and have lost their hunger for winning. But not this guy. Every single time Busch gets behind the wheel, he is looking to beat you. It's that simple. And if he doesn't...well, take a look.