By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises thus far this season has been the performance of Clint Bowyer.
Coming into 2009, Bowyer all but predicted gloom and doom, having been forced to shift teams within Richard Childress Racing following last season. Bowyer had moved from his comfort zone with the No. 07 Jack Daniels team to a new role as front man for the No. 33 General Mills Chevy team, a new fourth team in the expanded RCR stable.
In so doing, Bowyer went from a team that had easily made the Chase for the Sprint Cup the last two seasons to an untested team made up of a new crew chief, Shane Wilson, and all new crew members, while new teammate Casey Mears inherited Bowyer's old crew and crew chief (Gil Martin) for this season.
Bowyer even asked team owner Richard Childress if he was being demoted, in a sense. Childress replied to just believe in him and that the shift would make sense sooner rather than later.
"When your boss says this is what you're going to do, it's pretty much what you're going to do," Bowyer said. "It definitely was nerve-wracking. ... Maybe it was time for a change and it's really opened my eyes in the beginning part of this season with a completely new team. (There was a) new optimism, new everything. It's already opened my eyes to what can become of this."
Childress looks like a prophet now. Heading into Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer has surprised many folks -- he sits second in the standings, just 43 points behind the leader, Jeff Gordon.
"Going into Bristol here, obviously things are going good," Bowyer said.
Surely, this can't be the same Clint Bowyer who only a few months ago publicly questioned whether he'd even make it to the Chase this season. While most other fans, reporters and critics have been looking at other drivers, such as Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, Bowyer has flown so far under the radar that some people are starting to call him "Stealth" Bowyer.
But his performance has been anything but stealth. He was fourth in the season-opening Daytona 500, second two weeks later at Las Vegas and sixth two weeks ago at Atlanta.
"We haven't even hit our stride yet and we've already had three good finishes out of four," said Bowyer, whose other finish, 19th at Fontana, wasn't all that bad. "I'm looking forward to the rest of the season seeing what this team is made out of."
Bowyer will start Sunday's race from the 31st position, but that's kind of to be expected. He's typically not a good qualifier: for example, in the first four races thus this season, the Emporia, Kan., native has qualified 21st (twice), 22nd and 37th.
One of the biggest keys to Bowyer's success has been the quick gelling and almost immediate good communication with Wilson atop the pit box. While Bowyer said during the preseason that he was concerned about how quickly he and Wilson would get on the same page, their collective record shows that their gelling has been fast -- and impressive as well.
"Certainly, I had a lot of faith in Gil Martin (his crew chief on the No. 07 team) and the success that we had was good, but I had a lot of faith in myself, too," Bowyer said. "I knew, given the right team, the right people I could still get the job done. Richard (Childress) has surrounded me with good people and everybody with Shane Wilson.
"The more I get to work with Shane Wilson the more I like him. He's very methodical, very organized and it's really working well for the communication side being that we were behind in that area any way. Through his organization it's really helped us stay ahead of our learning curve."
In last year's Food City 500 at Bristol, all three RCR drivers made it a 1-2-3 finish for the first time in team history, with Jeff Burton winning the race, Kevin Harvick finishing runner-up and Bowyer in third.
"That was awesome," he said. "It had never been done before at RCR, so it was definitely proud moments for everybody at RCR. That's what's fun about running good is when you come back to the shop on Monday morning and you walk through the shop, everybody is happy. It's not just you with a smile on your face, it's all 400 employees at RCR that are very excited and pumped up about the good run. That was a pretty special day."
With the addition of Mears this season, Bowyer wouldn't mind reprising last year's race finish and potentially make it a 1-2-3-4 RCR showing come Sunday.
So, while Bowyer was Mr. Doom and Gloom a couple of months ago, he suddenly has been transformed into Mr. Positive. Everything is going well in his world -- exceptionally well, in fact. It almost makes him want to forget all those dire fears he talked about in January.
"Change isn't always bad, and I think it's proved to be pretty good for me," Bowyer said.