It's a long way from the short tracks around Emporia, Kansas, to the high banks of Daytona International Speedway, but 24-year-old Clint Bowyer made the move seemingly overnight. Bowyer, the 2002 Midwest Region champion of the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series, is sharing Busch Series driving duties this season with Kevin Harvick in Richard Childress' No. 21 Chevrolet.
Bowyer, who drove to an eighth place finish in the ARCA season opener at Daytona, will drive 14 Busch races, while Harvick, normally the driver for Childress' No. 29 in the Nextel Cup Series, will drive in the other 20 Busch events.
"This is a dream come true for me," Bowyer says. "I am lucky enough to be living out my dream. Richard was Dale Earnhardt's car owner for so long, and now he works with a guy like Kevin Harvick. Having the chance to work with a driver like Kevin is awesome because he's a racer like me who will do whatever it takes to win. To me, the type of racer Kevin has become is how I want to be."
Harvick, of course, won the 2001 Busch championship in an RCR car and backed that up by helping Childress claim the 2003 car owners' title in the Busch Series.
"I've got to set my goals high because this team has set them high for me," Bowyer says. "If I don't keep my goals high, I'm not going to be in that car very long. I'm going to have to run hard because I've only got 14 races to get the job done. It's going to be a matter of me putting my nose to the grindstone, because I know I have a championship crew behind me. It's up to me to make it happen. My one true goal-and I really think we can do it-is to win a race."
Turning HeadsBowyer made two ARCA RE/MAX Series starts last season, with a best finish of second at Nashville Superspeedway in August, and his driving efforts quickly caught the attention of Childress.
"I was standing on Richard's hauler at Kentucky, and he asked me what I wanted to do," Bowyer explains. "I leaned over my shoulder and pointed out to the track with those cars going around and told him that was my dream. I asked him for advice and what he thought I needed to do to make that dream come true. He told me to get into a bigger car so he could see what I could do. From that day on, that was my goal even though getting into a bigger car like ARCA isn't cheap. But I have no question that getting into an ARCA car was what turned my life around."
A follow-up conversation with Childress later in the year developed into the career opportunity that thousands of racers across the country only dream about getting.
"It's kind of funny because I talked to Richard at Charlotte about trying to buy one of his old cars to turn into an ARCA car," Bowyer says. "The next thing I know, I'm working back at the body shop in Emporia, and he calls me and wants to talk to me about this Busch Series deal. I was so excited that he called me because I thought he was just going to ask me if I still wanted to buy an ARCA car. I had been trying to get in touch with him.
"Here I am asking about the ARCA deal, and Richard is trying to talk to me about the Busch ride, so it took me a few minutes to figure out what he really wanted. That was kind of a neat deal because I was on a plane to come to his shop to talk to him the very next day."
After the 2003 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Childress took Bowyer to three-quarter-mile USA International Speedway in Lakeland, Florida, for a test session that, according to all parties involved, went extremely well.
"That was just a little bit of pressure on me, but I loved the challenge," Bowyer says with a laugh. "Richard called me at the end of last year and told me he wanted me to come down to Homestead and hang out with the crew, and after that go down to Lakeland to see how I would do. He told me if I did well there and everybody liked me, I'd probably have the deal. It was a lot of pressure, and I was very nervous, but it ended up being an awesome test that couldn't have turned out better.
Childress says he has been impressed with Bowyer's racing talents since he first heard about Bowyer tearing up the tracks in the Midwest-both asphalt and dirt-a couple of years ago.
"I started hearing about him and watching him race, and I started calling some people to see what he had going on," Childress says. "I'll tell you one thing, he's got the piss and vinegar that it takes to get the job done. He's got the fire that I like in my drivers, and I know he's going to do a good job for us. I like a driver who has run on dirt tracks because they know how to control a car. I've watched Clint take equipment that wasn't as good as some of the guys he was racing with and beat them.
Says Harvick: "Any guy that's able to drive on both dirt and asphalt like Clint has done, is going to be able to adapt to the Busch cars pretty quickly. I know he's going to do a good job for us. Clint is very much like all the drivers we have here at RCR-he's young and has a lot of enthusiasm. That boy knows how to stand on the gas pedal, and that's the way we all are, so he fits right in."
Bowyer says he is living by one simple motto heading into his first year in the Busch Series: "If you can make it happen with nothing, like I've done in the past, you're going to be able to make it with everything. This is about as high as the hill goes for me as far as getting the chance here at RCR. Then again, it's been kind of hard because I've had my life turned in a different direction every day since this has all come about. I'm just trying to learn what it's like to go through life as a racer. "Richard has got my foot in the door-now it's up to me to make it happen as far as seat time and learning everything there is to know. There are so many resources here at Richard Childress Racing, and I've had to learn a lot to be able to take advantage of what I now have at my fingertips."
Since aligning with RCR and relocating to Mooresville, North Carolina, Bowyer has become acquainted with the finer points of life as a racer.
"It's been kind of nice not having to hop into my old pickup truck and haul my trailer to wherever I'm racing," Bowyer says. "Now I have a plane sitting there to take me to the races, and it's there waiting to take me home afterwards. Just a little thing like that has been a big deal to me."
Making His BreaksBowyer's racing career started at a relatively young age. He started out racing motorcycles at the age of 6 and continued until he was 16. By then a trip to a local short track had changed his goals in racing.
"One day my grandfather took me to an old quarter-mile dirt track [in Kansas] called Humboldt Speedway," Bowyer recalls. "We found an old '78 that a guy had raced, and that thing had weeds growing up through the floorboard. We hooked that car up to a pickup and dragged it back to the shop and started to work on it. From there, away we went. Since then, racing is the only thing I've ever known, and you really have to go in the direction you feel comfortable with. I've really never had anything to do or think about other than racing."
Bowyer got started racing on Friday nights at Lakeside Speedway's dirt surface in Kansas City while also competing Saturday nights on the asphalt at 1-70 Speedway in Odessa, Missouri. When discussing his climb through the ranks, Bowyer is quick to give credit to the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series presented by Dodge. In particular, he recalls a trip to the 2001 awards banquet for the series, when other drivers were rewarded for their on-track efforts.
That night, Bowyer says, proved to be a motivating factor that propelled him to 10 victories and 18 top 5 finishes in 19 races in the Modified division at Lakeside, along with the $43,000 paycheck that came from winning the 2002 Midwest Region championship.
The '03 season saw Bowyer compete in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series Late Model and the NASCAR International Truck and Engine Corporation Midwest Series (formerly the RE/MAX Challenge Series). He also raced in other series like NASCAR Kodak Southeast and the Southwest Tour.
Bowyer's dream was realized when he caught the eye of Childress and had his two ARCA starts. From there, as they say, the rest is history, or at least history in the making.
Same Destination, Different PathThe path to the top divisions of stock car racing has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. At one time, NASCAR's Weekly Racing Series was the standard proving ground for drivers as they moved through the ranks.
Current NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers who graduated from the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series before reaching one of NASCAR's top three divisions are Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Elliott Sadler, and brothers Jeff and Ward Burton.
During the 1980s and '90s, the dynamic began to change, however, as drivers came from non-typical venues, such as open-wheel competition or the American Speed Association. Drivers who advanced from ASA include Cup Champions Matt Kenseth, Rusty Wallace, and Alan Kulwicki, as well as Mark Martin, Scott Wimmer, Johnny Benson, and Johnny Sauter.
Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, and John Andretti came from the Indy Car ranks. Jimmie Johnson actually raced in off-road trucks before moving into the ASA ranks. Ryan Newman cut his teeth in Sprint Cars before making his stock car debut in the ARCA Series only four years ago.
There's a clear reason for the shift from the Weekly Racing Series, according to Nextel Cup team owner Richard Childress.
"I think the big thing there is the Weekly Racing Series is made up of guys that run on local tracks that just don't get a lot of exposure," Childress says. "Whereas in ASA, I could watch Johnny Sauter on television race on a lot of different style tracks. I feel like that's been the one big key that has changed the way drivers are coming into the sport like they are today."-Jason Mitchell