Preseason Rank: 15
The power of the almighty sponsorship dollar in NASCAR was never more evident than during Clint Bowyer’s 2011 free agency flirtations. With his contract expiring, Bowyer spent most of the season dealing with future plans, and the distraction showed in his performance on the racetrack. With only one win last year, Bowyer missed the Chase for the second time in three seasons, and now he’ll start from scratch with one of the Cup Series’ newer teams in 2012.
Why would Bowyer, who has spent his six-year Cup career at Richard Childress Racing, make the decision to jump ship from a top-tier program? The answer’s in Bowyer’s wallet; money often trumps loyalty (and sometimes winning) for athletes. Last July, Bowyer was telling everyone that he and RCR were close to inking a new deal to keep him in place for the long term. Just one month later, he was reportedly talking to almost every other team in the garage, save Hendrick Motorsports. What made the difference? Support from sponsor 5-Hour Energy, in the form of a 20-race deal that gave Bowyer the power to name his own asking price.
That thirst for a higher salary took RCR out of the running. So in swooped Michael Waltrip Racing, paying the price tag for a driver of Bowyer’s caliber and the money the energy-boosting beverage was going to throw into the mix. Whereas Bowyer had felt disrespected, MWR rolled out the red carpet — and why not? After all, this driver is 4-for-6 in career Chase appearances, while Waltrip’s cars are a combined 0-for-12 since debuting their Toyotas in 2007.
“I think for everyone involved, the best decision was made,” Bowyer says. “Michael Waltrip Racing is a growing team that is hiring a lot of the right people and on the brink of breaking out. I know I’m joining it at the right time.”
The marketing department might disagree, because, after all, money’s tight. Filling a total of 16 remaining races on Bowyer’s car proved a bit of a tall order, to the point that MWR’s third car, the No. 55, has owner Waltrip and Cup veteran Mark Martin combining to run a partial schedule with sponsorship confirmed for just 30 of 36 events.
How the driver will mesh with veteran crew chief Brian Pattie, whose last bit of success was leading Juan Pablo Montoya into the Chase in 2009, is also a bit of an unknown. Bowyer and Pattie do share a dirt-racing background, however, which should aid in initial communication.
Bowyer seemed to cut loose once the deal with MWR was signed in 2011. Finishing 13th in points, he captured a win at Talladega in the fall and seemed to jell again with his RCR program. But there was no turning back.
“Leaving there was the hardest part of the decision,” Bowyer admits. “But now, I’m ready to start the next chapter in my racing career.”
Don’t look for that next chapter to be a titillating page-turner. While MWR has been competitive at times, its 2011 combined stats of zero wins, four top 5s and 16 top 10s amongst three teams were worse than Bowyer’s alone (one win, four top 5s, 16 top 10s). Add in the multitude of adjustments a new organization, manufacturer, crew chief and team will present, and for Bowyer to simply match his 2010 Chase performance with Childress could be a bit of a tall order. Money can buy you a ride, but the rest must be earned.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
Moving to Michael Waltrip Racing this season, Clint Bowyer will get a fresh start to his NASCAR career. Throughout his time in NASCAR, Bowyer has shown he can compete for wins and championships, but he has also been inconsistent at times. Will Bowyer shine as the team’s star driver at MWR? Will the equipment be enough to compete at the top week-in and week-out?
“Bowyer sold out and chased the money to Michael Waltrip Racing,” says a media member. “Will the step down affect his results? Probably.”
A rival crewman agrees: “Clint was a good fit at Childress. I thought he could win a championship there in time. I don’t see that happening at MWR. There’s no way he could’ve known it was coming, but I bet he’d love to have known the 22 seat (at Penske Racing) would open up.”
Top 5s: 4
Top 10s: 16
Laps Led: 345
Laps Completed: 10,441
Lead Lap Finishes: 25
Bonus Points: 20
Races Led: 16
Average Start: 16.4
Average Finish: 15.5
After First 26 Races: 14th
Final Points Standing: 13th
Driver Rating: 87.5 (12th)
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.