KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sometimes, NASCAR’s Clint Bowyer still forgets who his friends are.
When Bowyer battled new Goodyear tires during practice last week at Texas Motor Speedway, he reached out to veteran Jeff Burton for some advice.
“I asked if his car was as tight as mine,” Bowyer said. “He said, ‘What the (heck) …?’’’
Then it dawned on Bowyer. He and Burton are no longer teammates. They could still share a friendship but not information.
That relationship ended at Bowyer’s last visit to Kansas Speedway when he made a career-altering move.
Bowyer, from Emporia, announced he was making the jump from Richard Childress Racing, his Sprint Cup team of six years, to fledgling Michael Waltrip Racing starting with the 2012 season.
Bowyer became the organization’s centerpiece driver, and though he’s still looking for his first win of the season, the move has worked out well. Bowyer will return to Kansas Speedway for Sunday’s STP 400 in 10th place in the Sprint Cup standings after seven races.
“I’m arguably running better than I ever have; that’s the truth,” said Bowyer, who has three Top 10 finishes in seven starts this year. “We’re seven races into this, and I’ve had two shots at wins already. You run in the top five long enough, opportunities present themselves.”
Bowyer, 32, didn’t have a lot of options at the end of last season, even though he won five races in his career with RCR and twice finished in the top five in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Citing a lack of sponsorship, RCR dropped its fourth car from fulltime competition for 2012, and many in the garages believe Childress is saving the seat for one of his grandsons, either Austin Dillon, who is racing in the Nationwide Series this year, or Ty Dillon, who is in the Camping World Trucks Series.
Bowyer brought a high-profile sponsor to MWR — 5-hour Energy Drink — but admitted there was some trepidation in losing the security of the only organization he knew and with whom he won a Nationwide Series championship in 2008.
“Anytime you make a change as big as I did, there’s always going to be worry and always going to be concern,” Bowyer said, “but I saw the potential was there, and the best thing is it’s just so gratifying and satisfying to see that potential playing out.
“There’s definitely a sense of pride in making a change and making a change work. For whatever reason, I’m enjoying this so much more this year than the last couple of years. I am enjoying the people I am around, the people I am working with. Obviously success has a big hand in that. “
At Richard Childress Racing, Bowyer often took a backseat to Kevin Harvick and Burton. With Waltrip, if he’s not the top dog, he shares the spotlight with Martin Truex Jr., who is in his third year with the organization and is fourth in the standings; and veteran Mark Martin, who is racing part-time and finished third last week at Texas.
“The biggest thing is we all meet together so much more than we did before,” Bowyer said. “That’s why you see all our cars running good; it’s not just one … and on the flip side of that, when we struggle, we’re probably all three going to struggle. But I would rather be a part of something like that than have one car at any organization running better than the other two.
“Over the long haul, that doesn’t pay off.”
Not that Bowyer doesn’t appreciate his time at RCR.
“I’m not taking anything away from my past,” Bowyer said. “Childress was a wonderful experience, it was an opportunity of a lifetime, and now I’m trying to make the best out of a new opportunity. The neatest thing is not everyone gets more than one opportunity in life.
“Richard gave me my opportunity and opened the door for me into this world, and certainly Michael and everybody at MWR is giving me another opportunity to compete at the level I can compete at and have fun doing it, all at the same time ”
Having fun was one of the attributes Waltrip wanted Bowyer to bring to his organization.
“Clint’s brought happiness,” said crew chief Brian Pattie. “This 36 weeks is a grind. You have highs and lows, and fortunately it’s highs with him, even when we run bad.”
That happened when Bowyer finished 30th at Phoenix, the only race he has failed to finish this year.
“We had a problem at Phoenix,” Pattie said, “and he forgets about it 30 minutes later and says let’s talk about how we’re going to get better next week. That’s different than what I’ve had in the past, and it’s a good thing.”
That camaraderie extends all the way to the top with team owner Michael Waltrip who accompanied Bowyer to the NCAA basketball tournament championship game in New Orleans between Bowyer’s beloved Kansas Jayhawks and Waltrip’s Kentucky Wildcats.
“I’m not that old … we have a lot in common,” said Waltrip, 48. “We can do things like that and have a good time together. It’s great to be friends with your guys. And when you give them good cars, it’s easier to be friends with them.”
Last spring, Bowyer won the Camping World Trucks series race in a truck owned by former RCR teammate Kevin Harvick, who has since closed his shop. So Bowyer will unlikely be able to defend that championship because one of the few open seats in the truck series belongs to Kyle Busch Motorsports, who is sponsored by a rival energy-drink maker.
That will enable Bowyer to fully concentrate on winning his first Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway, which is dearly important to him. One of his great disappointments in racing was a controversial second-place finish to Greg Biffle in 2007.
“Anytime you go back to Kansas, it’s always busy,” said Bowyer, who will throw out the first pitch at the Royals-Toronto game on Friday night. “It’s difficult to go home because of getting pulled in different directions, all the while you’re focusing on getting a good run.
“That’s what is most important, to run well in front of all your fans and family.”