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Friday, January 19, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Clint Bowyer

Clint Bowyer Age: 26
0 wins, 4 top 5's, 11 top 10's, 16 top 15's
Avg start: 20.3 Avg finish 19.7
Points Standing: 17th Driver Rating: 74.9
#07 Jack Daniels Chevy Crew Chief: Gil Martin

Bowyer wins the mythical award for Most Surprising Rookie. Sure Denny Hamlin won races and made the Chase, but nothing was expected out of Bowyer. He stayed out of trouble most of the year and steadily improved his finishes. Entering 2007 he is suddenly a legitmate Chase candidate. It is a pretty sharp ascent for Bowyer, who had one Cup race prior to 2006.

Bowyer benefitted from excellent timing. He entered the #07 ride at a time when RCR returned to elite status at the Cup level. The three Childress cars combined for 1 win and only six top fives in 2005. After drastic improvements in every department, RCR cars scored 6 wins and 26 top five finishes in 2006. Bowyer made the most of the tools at his disposal. He began the season with a top ten at Daytona, followed by two top fifteen finishes at California and Las Vegas. His first big breakthrough came at Phoenix. He led 21 laps before finishing 5th. Teammate Kevin Harvick won the race and Jeff Burton finished ninth. It was the first sign that RCR's short track and 1 mile speedway program was one of the best. This strong program was reinforced by Bowyer's 10th at Richmond and later led 23 laps at Loudon before a disappointing 27th result.

RCR's progress spilled over to the intermediate tracks where Bowyer was most comfortable. He scored top five finishes at Indy, California and Texas. He also led 43 laps at his home track Kansas speedway. He hit the wall while leading and spent the rest of the day regaining the lost ground finishing 9th. Bowyer is definitely a threat to win a speedway race in 2007.

The season was not always smooth or easy. Had a good run at Pocono but was spun out by Tony Stewart. A furious Bowyer waited for Stewart in the pits, but nothing else happened. Stewart claimed the rookie was holding him up, so he moved him. Stewart was penalized a lap, but wound up finishing 7th. Bowyer wound up 41st. When he wasn't getting "taught" lessons by veterans, Bowyer did a nice job of earning respect. He scored top tens at both Daytona races, a place where rookies don't always get support in the draft. He led laps at 8 races and ran in the top ten at several others. The more time spent at the front of the pack, the sooner veterans get accustomed to rookies.

Aside from great equipment, RCR had several factors in place to help Bowyer's transition to Cup. His crew chief Gil Martin moved with Bowyer from the Busch series. Martin had been a Cup crew chief for RCR prior to his role with Bowyer. For a rookie driver, this is a big plus to have an experienced crew chief making the right adjustments and knowing what works. The other big help was Bowyer's two veteran teammates. Harvick and Burton both have great insight and experience in the series. Having a veteran sounding board is a big part of figuring out how to drive at NASCAR's highest level.

To get Bowyer additional seat time, RCR also ran a full Busch sechedule plus select truck races. He won the fall race at Dover. If not for Harvick, Bowyer certainly could have won more Busch races. He did score 12 top fives and 17 top tens to finish 3rd in points. He also won the fall truck raceat Texas after sitting on the pole. The only thing missing now is a Cup win to add to his resume.

So what will happen to the #07 in '07? The biggest project is the Car of Tomorrow. RCR is spending a lot of time and money to maintain their edge, and the CofT is no exception. This could propel all three RCR cars even further beyond the competition. Some team is going to have a large advantage on the CofT tracks, and it's very possible RCR becomes that team.The intermediate program should be strong again, meaning Bowyer is a good candidate to pick up a win at one of the tracks. The most likely places are California, Texas or Kansas. He is also very solid at Dover. Bowyer can afford improvement at road courses.For some reason Michigan has also been a weak spot for Bowyer. He has never scored a top ten in Cup or Busch.

The biggest thing for Bowyer is improving his consistency. He has strong equipment and a good crew chief in Martin. If Boywer can turn some of the top fifteens into top tens, he can definitely improve his 18th place standing. A top ten spot is a big jump. Winning a race is the first hurdle. Real hardware is surely preferred to winning mythical Most Surprising awards.

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