By Briar Starr, Staff Writer for Kickin’ The Tires
In continuation of our first-season stories, where Kickin’ The Tires catches up with a motorsport driver past or present to discuss their rookie year in motorsports, we recently caught up with former NASCAR Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer, the Emporia, Kansas native competed in the Cup Series over a 16-year span and retired after the 2020 season.
During this feature, Kickin’ The Tires and Bowyer caught up and discussed his first-ever season in NASCAR, which took place in what was then called the NASCAR “Busch Series” now Xfinity that occurred in seasons from 2004 and 2005.
He had a successful Xfinity career winning the driver’s title in 2008 and collecting eight victories in 181 starts. We take a look back on how Bowyer was able to get a ride with Richard Childress Racing when he first started out, how the opportunity almost didn’t work out in the first place, and many other memories regarding his rookie season in NASCAR.
In 2003, Bowyer made limited starts in the ARCA Menards Series and had successful runs with one top-five and two Top-10 finishes. Those successful runs caught the eye of NASCAR Team Owner Richard Childress.
Childress eventually called Bowyer the first time, however, as the legend goes, Bowyer hung up on him and thought it was a prank. However, Bowyer received another call from Childress, and this time he wasn’t joking.
Bowyer says he didn’t expect Childress to call him back after hanging up originally but it was a call that changed everything for him.
“Well, first of all, hell no,” Bowyer said. “That phone call just doesn’t happen. The dream was a reality for me. He (Childress) did call and that was a time of my life. We played a lot of pranks on each other and to me at the time, that fell in the wheelhouse of one of those pranks. It wasn’t a joke. It was for sure enough Childress and he offered me a ride of a lifetime.
“The coolest or weirdest thing about it, there were so many moving parts for him. I’ll never forget being picked up at the airport in North Carolina. Mike Dillon (Ty and Austin Dillon’s dad) picked me up at the airport. This guy comes out of a jacked-up Suburban and he’s all jacked up himself and I thought to myself, ‘who in the hell is this guy?’
“Mike picks me up and in true Mike Dillon fashion, he has no idea what to do with me and doesn’t have any direction. Here we are driving around complete strangers. We struck up a conversation, and the next thing I know, I’m at Austin Dillon’s football practice and went to football practice with him (Mike Dillon).”
Bowyer at the time may have not realized what was coming at him, but when reflecting back on that memory with the Dillon family, he soaked every moment in with everyone. That included his jaw-dropping experience when walking in the front door of Childress’s home.
“Mike took me home with him and at the time, it was the biggest house I saw in my life,” reflected Bowyer. “Truth be known, that was Richard Childress’s house and he brought me inside, and I hung out with the family. My parents are wanting to know what is going on and whether or not I got the job and I’m like ‘I’m at his son-in-law’s house and I never saw Childress yet.’”
The following week, Bowyer was at the shop where the teams worked on the RCR Xfinity cars. Still, there was no sign of Childress anywhere to be found.
“Hours go by and there was no sign of Richard,” said a surprised Bowyer. “The next day goes by and I start getting to know some of the guys like Will Lind (former crew chief) and all the while, my parents keep calling me. Finally, on the third or fourth day, my boss in Emporia calls and says ‘hey, are you coming back to work, or is this dream a reality?’
“I thought, ‘Well, I need to call Richard and get an answer from him.’ I finally got ahold of Richard and he was working some things out on my deal he tells me to tell my boss that I’m in good hands. Toward the end of the week, Childress introduced himself and told me I had the job. Come to find out, he was contemplating putting Jeff Green or Jay Sauter in the car, but instead, he took a chance on a rookie that no one knew about.
With the deal done, Bowyer entered the Busch Series at the age of 25. Back then was considered young for NASCAR drivers, unlike today’s drivers who start at the age of 18 or younger. The Kansas native reflects on whether or not he was ready for the big time.
“Back then, I was full of confidence,” he said. “In any car I raced in, I was good. I had a pep in my step. I had a chance to test a lot and was alongside Kevin Harvick. He would get in the car and run, and I would do the same thing. In some instances, I was faster than Kevin.
“That’s the difference back then compared to a rookie nowadays. We were in the car a lot and tested all week long. Always on the racetrack with a lot of seat time. That was a huge advantage of being a rookie than to now. I will say, back then when you were racing on Saturday it was a miniature Cup race with guys like Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Harvick, etc. I can tell you when you got in the car, it mattered how good of a racer you were.
“Everybody on that track was going to be faster than you and that’s what I wasn’t ready for at all. I came in with a lot of confidence, my lap times were fast. I was very fast in my first race in Texas. I was fast in practice and qualified well (sixth) which was hard then. The crowd back then was stout with those types of drivers.”
When Bowyer first entered the Busch Series, he raced on a part-time schedule in 2004 competing in 17 of the 34 race schedule before moving full-time in 2005. He talks about if it was hard managing expectations being a rookie driver on a part-time schedule.
“I remember having the mentality that I wanted to win right off the bat,” the 2008 Xfinity Series champion said. “I’ll never forget Will Lind (who originally was on the Earnhardt flying aces and ran the Busch program back in the day) saying ‘easy grasshopper, just take your time.’ It was so true. Once you got into reality, the expectations were to run all the laps.
“I’ll never forget those guys telling me, we just want you to run all the laps. I’m like, ‘run all the laps?’ These are long races and so getting to the end of the races without any mistakes like restarts and getting on pit road, those were what you wanted to accomplish. If you were lucky enough to get a Top 10 against that crowd, that was a Cup-level experience, and that ultimately led to my Cup offer.
“You had to race clean and respect those guys. If you’re wrecking all the time, you’re Cup ride isn’t going to come and you’ll eventually lose your ride. I mean, I remember the first time I wrecked right off the bat, it was a big wake-up call. From then on, it was ‘how can I fix this moving forward.'”
In Bowyer’s first race in Texas, he qualified sixth but unfortunately was regulated to a 36th place finish due to blowing an engine. Despite blowing an engine in his first race, he talks about what the preparations were like in the weeks leading up to it.
“I had big-time nerves heading into my first race,” the eight-time Xfinity winner said. “I can tell you this, anytime I was nervous about something I could compete at my best. Oftentimes, that dwindled further and further down. The hardest part for me was the lull in the middle of the year when you’re just racing and you get caught up with just another week, lap, and race.
“I was extremely nervous. but once again, I showed up and was fast. I was ready speed-wise, but I wasn’t ready learning-wise.”
In one of Bowyer’s earliest races, he remembers having tons of success at Nashville.
“For some reason, I was always good at Nashville, that’s what gave me the opportunity (to race) to begin with,” Bowyer added. “I raced Kyle Busch that day in 2004 and came close to winning that race, but Michael Waltrip ended up winning instead. It was because Kyle and I wiped each other out for the win.
“It was always cool to come back to Nashville and run well there. I don’t think I ever ran outside of second. We were always extremely strong there. Nashville was the one that put me on the map.”
At the end of the 2004 season, Bowyer scored four top fives and seven Top 10 finishes along with one pole at Talladega. He recalls if he was satisfied with what he accomplished that year.
“You know back then those cars were different with having more throttle response than the Cup do today,” Bowyer said. “You had more horsepower under you in the Busch car at the time. You drove those cars with the throttle. That thing would bite you and looking back on that, I was great with driving those cars, especially with my early ranks of racing in the Midwest.”
After the ’04 season, Bowyer’s first win came at Nashville where he started fifth and led 70 laps.
“To be honest with you, I have never watched a race back and I should,” the former NASCAR driver said. “Maybe, I hit the wall too many times. I see a post on Mark Martin’s Instagram page with his setup from 1990 in the ASA race and I’m like I don’t even remember much from my early career. I don’t know, my career went by so fast. That’s one of my downfalls in life.
“My wife will tell me, ‘you have to slow down and absorb some of this. You just can’t blow through it and go on to the next one.'”
Later on, in 2005, the Kansas native finished second in championship points to then-champion Martin Truex Jr. Bowyer had two wins, 12 top fives, and 22 Top 10 finishes.
“The one I remember the most that year is Kentucky Speedway and racing with Carl Edwards,” he said. “I had him beat. However, we got into lap traffic and we were taking cheap shots at each other. He (Edwards) knocked me out of the lead on the last lap and in respect, he didn’t do a backflip. I’ll never forget that race until the day I die. I wanted to go over there and take the trophy, and break it over his windshield. That’s the one that got away from me.”
Throughout Bowyer’s racing career, he has earned eight victories in the Xfinity Series, three in Trucks, and 10 in Cup. The Kansas native details what his favorite trophy is in his collection.
“Both of them are Tennessee trophies,” Bowyer said. “The Nashville trophy is just because it’s a cool trophy with a guitar. However, it was the track where it kicked started my career. Had Nashville not come along, there was no way Richard Childress would’ve seen me. However, my favorite trophy is the Elvis Memphis trophy. That is the baddest trophy, it’s without a doubt the best trophy.”
Continuing to reflect on his rookie season, Bowyer has a collection of helmets that reminds him of his rookie year.
“I only collect my helmets believe it or not,” he said. “I never give up helmets with the exception of charity. I always enjoyed creating the design on the back of my helmets with all the iconic images. Vince Neil of Motley Crue came to my house the other day and wanted a helmet. He’s a huge race fan and wanted to trade something from his collection for it.
I went downstairs and found my original Jack Daniels helmet from my rookie year in Cup. That was a badass paint job on that helmet. I hadn’t seen that thing in 20 years, but it was cool getting to see it again.”
Winding down his rookie year memories, the 10-time Cup winner recalls one favorite memory from early on in his career.
“Back then at that Texas race in 2004, there was this Orange ball in the grandstands and it was people from Emporia, Kansas (Bowyer’s hometown) and this was back in NASCAR’s heyday where you had a lot of people showing up to these races,” Bowyer said. “Looking back on it now, how cool was it to have your town support show up to watch you race, but at the moment, it was almost embarrassing.”
As Bowyer’s reflection on his rookie year was nearly complete, he recalls what he would’ve done differently
“The only thing I wish I would’ve done differently in my career is to step up in the back half of my career,” he said. “I wouldn’t change a thing in my first years as a driver. We had a lot of fun in those days. When you look back on life, opportunities with doors that open, and for me, the window was extremely fast.
“Some people never get the opportunity (to race) and others are up, and down the highway chasing their dream for years before they get it. For me, it all happened within eight months. That was unique for me, but I always respected that. I felt fortunate to get lucky at the right time and be seen at the right time and get the right opportunity when Richard Childress needed a new driver and I just fitted that slot.
“I was well aware of how lucky I was and I’ll always respect that. It taught me things happened for a reason, but you have to be ready for it. When I look back on my rookie season, that opportunity probably happened way before I was ready for it. Nonetheless, I had to step up to the plate and hit the damn ball. That was probably the hardest thing I ever had to overcome the lack of experience and the willingness of encouragement to step up and hit it.”
Throughout Bowyer’s NASCAR career, the Emporia, Kansas native has made 541 Cup Series starts with 10 victories and four poles with the best points finish of second in 2012. In the Xfinity Series, he made 181 starts with eight victories and two poles along with scoring the 2008 series championship. Lastly, he made 14 Truck Series starts and scored three victories to his credit.