2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 33 General Mills Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Shane Wilson
Years with current team: 7
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 3rd (2007)
Hometown: Emporia, Kan.
Born: May 30, 1979
After a controversial postseason that combined a crippling penalty with two victories that doubled his career win total, the normally laid-back Clint Bowyer turned emotional perseverance into a late charge that’s likely to carry over into 2011. The 31-year-old has made the Chase three times in five full seasons and would have finished inside the top 5 in each if not for the 150 points lost within the fine print of NASCAR Rulebook, Section 20.3. It was that public appeal to save his title bid after a tolerance infraction found after a win at New Hampshire that brought the spotlight, awakening all to the promise hidden by a championship bid lost through an official’s call.
“It was devastating to the momentum, your mojo,” he said of how that one moment, following a Loudon victory in the first playoff race, affected the season. “There are so many things, more than just 150 points we lost. The two weeks after that, we ran terrible. Our focus wasn’t there.”
But the short-term pain of that ugly ending may turn into a long-term benefit for 2011. His coming-out party to the media revealed a hidden gem that’s been around for years. Truth is, Bowyer has always been one of those drivers who shows up like clockwork at the end of races, whether or not anyone has noticed his presence. He rarely makes trouble, setting the modern era record of 83 races without a DNF while crashing out just four times in five full years on the Sprint Cup circuit. That steady-as-she-goes approach is one that brings home top finishes, albeit under the radar compared to fiery teammate Kevin Harvick and the organization’s veteran, outspoken leader Jeff Burton.
Now, the No. 33 team looks to trump them both, as Bowyer’s career-high 400 laps led have injected confidence he can get to the front and stay there. And why not? RCR took just one year to turn around three teams — none of which made the Chase in 2009 — and make them contenders in 2010. While questions may linger about expansion, Paul Menard actually brings greater financial stability with his father’s home improvement stores, extra money that will likely be spread among the four RCR entries. Bowyer has a wealth of backing all his own, and he’s comfortable with the Shane Wilson-led team. Car owner Richard Childress is dedicated to winning a seventh title for his organization, and he appears to have faith in Bowyer, whom he took on as a relatively unknown Nationwide Series driver six years ago but who now stands as one of the more sought-after commodities in the Cup garage.
Bowyer’s other asset is his consistency. While he doesn’t put up huge numbers in the win column, it’s rare to find him at the back of the pack unless something goes drastically wrong. Bowyer finished in the top 10 exactly 50 percent of the time in 2010, while finishing lower than 30th in just a half-dozen races. It’s the type of even-keel style that reflects a mature, relaxed personality.
Just how laid-back is Bowyer? Consider his wild ride in the 2007 Daytona 500. Part of a last lap melee, he ended up flipping wildly through the frontstretch grass, coming to rest with his car crushed, on fire, and full of sod. But instead of running scared, Bowyer climbed out, calmly took off his gloves and tossed them back in the car, giving absolutely no indication that barrel-rolling several times fazed him in the least. Referring to his racecar as “the old girl,” Bowyer has a Midwestern twang that carries with it a style that’s quickly earned on-track respect from others.
A close look at his 2010 stats shows it won’t be hard to improve. Two DNFs came at the short tracks of Bristol and Martinsville, long his forte, while a likely victory at Pocono was ruined after a rare self-induced trip into the wall. Bowyer also lost the chemistry of his pit crew, loaned to Harvick over the last five races of 2010, although the replacements weren’t too shabby.
Considering that everyone else in the team is distracted by championship hangover (Harvick), the future (Burton), or the present (Menard, adjusting to a new program), that leaves Bowyer, once the forgotten man, in perfect position to seize the opportunity of RCR’s resurgence. If he can add another level of aggression to his style, those top finishes could easily become wins, and suddenly, the words “championship contender” seem realistic when applied to the No. 33.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
At 31, Bowyer is coming into his own and is widely respected among his peers. “You can argue back and forth over whether or not it makes a difference,” says one crew chief, “but I don’t think people realize how popular Bowyer is among his peers. The common term is ‘respected,’ but Bowyer is really ‘liked’ by his fellow drivers. They consider him a dependable, stand-up guy on and off the track.”
Another crew chief says, “The guy won two races in the Chase. The penalty he got after the first one knocked him out of contention, but look at what he did, how he kept on plugging away. He finished 10th in the standings. Take away those 150 points (penalty after New Hampshire victory) and he’s fifth. He wasn’t going to win the championship, but he might be the guy everybody’s overlooking in ’11. He just might be the sleeper.”
Another cautions, “The only thing is that RCR has had a tendency to ‘bounce’ from year to year. One year, they’ve got three in the Chase (2008), next year they don’t have any and last year they get all three in again. The last time they fell off was when they added a fourth team, and they’re doing that again this year.”
Looking at Checkers: There’s no sure bet here, but he’s been pretty solid on the plate tracks.
Pretty Solid Pick: With two of his four career wins in Loudon, it’s obvious he has something figured out.
Good Sleeper Pick: He had California won last year until NASCAR threw one of its infamous debris cautions.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: His worst average finish of any track is at Darlington (23.2).
Insider Tip: Jack of all tracks, master of none.
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 18
Laps Led: 400
Laps Completed: 10,133
Lead Lap Finishes: 28
Bonus Points: 80
Races Led: 15
Average Start: 18.0
Average Finish: 14.4
After First 26 Races: 12th
Final Points Standing: 10th
Driver Rating: 91.7 (8th)