The car was a castoff from NASCAR's top series, a former No. 36 Pontiac driven by Ken Schrader at MB2 Motorsports, and it had seen better days. It had been wrecked and pieced back together again, reborn with all the sweat and sponsorship money a couple of old dirt racers could muster. Clint Bowyer strapped into it for the first time at an ARCA event at Nashville Superspeedway, with no idea that destiny had slipped along for the ride.
Eight hundred miles away, in a place far removed from that Nashville ARCA garage in more ways than one, Richard Childress was watching. Rain had washed out Cup activities that day on the road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Sitting in his motor home, the champion team owner flipped through satellite television channels and came across the ARCA race in Tennessee. Craig Abbott, a franchiser for the Sonic Drive-In chain that backed Bowyer's car and was an associate sponsor at Richard Childress Racing, had told his friend to watch this hard-charging kid from Kansas.
So Childress watched. And liked what he saw.
"I started watching him, reading about him winning races out West," Childress said. "[Abbott] told me [Bowyer] was going to run that ARCA race. I knew the car he had wasn't that good of a car, but he almost won the race with it."
Almost. Bowyer led 47 laps on that August afternoon in 2003, getting everything he could out of a banged-up racecar, and finishing second only after Mario Gosselin overtook him with less than 10 to go. And thus began the chain of events that led to a meeting in Charlotte, a test session in Florida, and ultimately a ride with one of NASCAR's premier organizations for a driver few had ever heard of until Childress introduced him to the world. Now it comes full circle, as the pride of Emporia, Kan., comes home to Kansas Speedway this weekend as a race winner on the sport's premier circuit and one of the top contenders in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
It seems like a fairy tale come true. But those who knew Bowyer back when he was spinning dirt modifieds at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City aren't surprised.
"I don't know many people that are more of a fierce competitor than Clint Bowyer," said Scott Traylor, who owned the ARCA car in which Bowyer recorded his eye-opening runner-up finish at Nashville. "I've been going to races since '66, and I know a lot of racers. And I know very few that have the swagger and the confidence and the ability, and just everything to back it up. He's just driven like nobody I've ever seen."
He's been doing it for some time, starting in motorcycles as a 5-year-old and winning a pair of NASCAR Weekly Racing Series track titles once he progressed from two wheels to four. Traylor, who had owned one of Bowyer's modified cars, damaged the old MB2 Pontiac while competing in an ARCA race at Kansas City in early 2003. He had sunk roughly $50,000 into the vehicle, and didn't have enough to cash to fix it on his own. Enter Bowyer, who scrounged up about $15,000 worth of sponsorship from Sonic, paired it with the $10,000 in sponsor money Traylor had, and helped to piece the car back together again
They rented an engine and went to Nashville, long shots in a Waste Management 200 now long forgotten by most all but those who competed in it. Bowyer was 11th-fastest in practice on the 1.33-mile concrete layout, and qualified seventh with a time just three-tenths of a second slower than that of pole-winner Frank Kimmel. Bowyer led 47 of 151 laps, but wore out his tires trying to stay in front. Gosselin got by him on the inside with nine to go, and won by 1.158 seconds. The second-place finish did little to dampen what was hailed as a phenomenal effort by Bowyer, who until a year earlier had never run an asphalt race.
"We had a great car today," Bowyer said afterward. "I just wasn't too sure about the driver."
Looking back on it now, Bowyer seems amazed at how it all came together.
"It was just an unbelievable day. To think back what we were able to accomplish with so little, none of us had a clue going into that thing that we were going to be even remotely close to having a shot at winning. To be able to qualify good and lead and do those things, it was just unbelievable," said Bowyer, who goes to Kansas fifth in points, 18 behind leader Jeff Gordon.
"I mean, to think back at the equipment, our resources, the things we had for that race, don't get me wrong, we didn't have just utter junk. But I mean it was not near what we were up against. There were so many unknowns. There were so many of us that had never raced at that level of racing. To be able to think back to what we were able to accomplish that day was a miracle, and I'm certainly thankful the right person was watching at the right time."
Bowyer's performance was enough to convince Childress to seek out the driver at an ARCA race at Charlotte. "Give me a chance," the driver told the car owner. Childress did, setting up a test for Bowyer at a short track in Lakeland, Fla.
"You could tell he was just eager and hungry," Childress said. "There was just something about him. You knew he wanted it bad. He had to earn his, because his family didn't have a pile of money, or nothing to go out and put him in the best stuff. He won with some stuff that wasn't the best stuff."
The Lakeland test sealed it. Childress didn't attend, but the people he sent to USA International Speedway raved about Bowyer's ability, his knack for communication, his feel for the car. It was all the result of the Bowyer's tutelage on dirt, a surface that instills an aptitude for throttle and car control that helps a driver quickly adapt to the loose setups required to make a Nextel Cup car go fast. Childress thinks so much of dirt racing that his grandson, Austin Dillon, is starting out on the surface.
"I think his dirt transition is what allows him to run these cars a little bit freer," said Childress, a former driver himself. "Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, all these guys have run dirt before. Car control and throttle control are a big deal. That's the reason we have our grandson running dirt today. If they're going to race, they're going to have to run dirt first and learn car control, so you're not always scared when a car gets a little free with you."
Those close to Bowyer saw his ability early on, beginning with the hundreds of trophies he collected as a motorcycle ace. But he didn't like the grind of motocross, and switched to cars in 1996. In 2001 the budding modified driver won track championships at two separate facilities, Lakeside and Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan. When Childress hired him to split the No. 21 Busch car with Kevin Harvick in 2004, Bowyer had less than two full seasons of asphalt racing behind him.
"It's just natural, raw ability. Because I've been in radio, we were always talking about him. And more times than not, we were talking about how fantastic he was coming up through the field," said Traylor, who co-hosts a racing talk show in Kansas City. "Because here in the Midwest, they do 12-car inversions every week. The top 12 in points, they would invert them every week, so he was always stuck on the sixth row. He just charged through the field. In the Midwest, when it comes to dirt modified drivers, the competition is second to none. Everybody knows about Iowa, Missouri, Kansas. This is where the most talented dirt modified drivers in the country come from, and for him to come in and make these drivers look foolish was just unbelievable."
Now it's time to go back to Kansas, back to where he once raced against the likes of Columbia, Mo., native Carl Edwards, back to where he led 40 laps last year before falling to ninth. Back to where he's known as "just Clint." It promises to be a big weekend, complete with a scheduled appearance Friday night at his old Lakeside track.
"There's going to be a lot of pressure, you know, all across the board," Bowyer said. "You want to run good in front of your hometown crowd."
Traylor thinks Bowyer can handle it. Throughout his rise to NASCAR's elite levels, the cagey Kansan has shown a certain unflappability. Even in the thick of his first championship run, not much seems to bother him. It's a trait that should serve him well this weekend, when the No. 07 car will compete before many who helped Bowyer get to that first ARCA race in Nashville, an event which launched him down to the road to stardom.
"He's been doing this long enough, that I think he can overcome all the outside activity and stay focused on what he's got to do behind the wheel," Traylor said. "Last year at Kansas, it looked like he was on his way to winning here. It was just the biggest letdown in the stands, even for people who didn't know him. The most popular win ever in the history of Kansas Speedway has been Carl Edwards in a truck. Carl did the backflip, and there was just electricity in the air. If Clint were to win, there's no doubt in my mind it would be three- or four-fold bigger than that."