November 17, 2007
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) -- Jimmie Johnson sits atop the NASCAR standings, one rung and 86 points ahead of Jeff Gordon.
From there, every other driver in the series is looking up at Clint Bowyer.
His name may not yet resonate with average sports fans, but give him time -- because the 28-year-old is just getting started. It's been a breakout season of sorts for the Kansas native, who was fixing fenders in a Ford dealership four years ago when Richard Childress called with an invitation that changed his life forever.
Bowyer's rise has been meteoric since.
Barring something strange in Sunday's Ford 400, he'll finish third in this season's Chase for the Nextel Cup standings, trailing only a pair of the sport's premier stars.
Not bad for a guy in just his second full season on the circuit.
``I wish we could have definitely come down to the last weekend in contention to win a championship,'' Bowyer said. ``We just fell a little short. Texas was pretty much the dagger, you know, the last chance and we just fell a little short. But I'm proud of our year.''
Bowyer qualified 19th Friday for Sunday's finale, with the pole going to -- surprise! -- Johnson, who's aiming for his fifth straight race win and second consecutive championship.
Ryan Newman qualified second, with Kasey Kahne third, Matt Kenseth fourth and Kurt Busch fifth. Among other notables, Gordon -- the only other driver with a chance of catching Johnson for the season title -- will start 11th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with start 13th in his final race with the team that bears his father's name.
``I'm doing my job. Let's just get on with it,'' Johnson said.
Bowyer's done his job just fine this season, too.
His title hopes were indeed dashed by a 19th-place finish in Texas two weeks ago, when Johnson won and opened up a 181-point lead over third place.
It was one of few blips on an otherwise solid -- surprisingly solid -- year.
Bowyer was the 12th and final qualifier for the Chase, which he entered with the grand total of zero career NASCAR wins.
He fixed that on the Chase's opening weekend.
Bowyer dominated the field at Loudon on the way to a victory, jumped to fourth in the points race and stayed near the front ever since. And with a finish of 37th or better Sunday, he'll clinch his No. 3 spot in the season standings -- and head into the offseason with plenty of confidence.
``I'm looking forward to going back to Kansas and enjoying Thanksgiving and being able to do whatever I want to do,'' said Bowyer, who has 17 top-10 finishes this season. ``I'm just looking forward to having some time to myself. Truth be told, I'm a racer and I complain about being too busy -- but as soon as I'm not busy, I'll be complaining because I'm ready to go back racing.''
It beats fixing dented pickups.
That was his job at a Kansas Ford dealership in 2003, when the famed owner Childress called him with an offer. Childress had seen Bowyer lead the field at an ARCA race earlier that year, introduced himself and got the driver's cell phone number.
``It's still unbelievable to me,'' Bowyer said.
Nonetheless, when Childress actually dialed, Bowyer still nearly hung up out of disbelief.
Now he's a highly valued member of the Childress franchise and is eagerly looking forward toward giving himself another title chance in 2008.
``We're having a good year,'' Bowyer said Friday. ``But the biggest thing I'm excited about is our future together. We're all staying intact, pretty much, as a team and I think that's going to be important to our success in the future.''