Will Clint Bowyer get last laugh?
The smile quickly disappeared as Clint Bowyer recently recalled the 150 points NASCAR took from him following his win in the 2010 Chase opener at New Hampshire.
The Michael Waltrip Racing driver still insists he could have made a run at the Sprint Cup title had it not been for the penalty that then-team owner Richard Childress challenged to the highest court possible.
"We were sixty-thousandths of an inch from fifth [in the final standings] and it still pisses me off thinking about it," said Bowyer, reminding why his New Hampshire car failed to meet NASCAR's specifications by fractions of an inch. "It cost me a lot of damn money."
Then the smile returned.
Bowyer is one of the most intense drivers in NASCAR when it comes to competing for wins and championships. He also is one of the funniest.
After coming from behind to win the regular-season finale at Richmond, Bowyer stared into the television camera and quipped, "Thank you, Juan Pablo [Montoya] for wrecking me and winning me the race. Thank you!"
When asked before last week's Chase opener at Chicagoland about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s chances of winning the title, Bowyer declared, "I hope his chances are terrible."
During last week's reception to unveil Jimmie Johnson's book of photographs portraying the life of the five-time champion, Bowyer jokingly interjected it was "the first book I've read in a long time."
When talking about the possibility of winning the championship, Bowyer declared he throws a better party than Johnson, whose post-banquet parties are legendary.
But the line that sums up Bowyer best came in 2008, when he called Waltrip the "the worst driver in NASCAR -- period," after mistakenly believing his future owner caused a multicar wreck at Bristol that damaged his.
"That showed a lot of personality," Waltrip said with a laugh.
It showed so much savvy that late last season Waltrip hired Bowyer from RCR to help turn around his organization.
Waltrip realized Bowyer not only had the talent to contend for championships, but a goofy personality similar to his that would be good for the entire organization.
"When he comes to the shop, the cameras don't have to be on," Waltrip said. "It doesn't have anything to do with an act or a game. It's who he is. It's genuine.
"That type of enthusiasm is something that our team needed. ... We got way more than we bargained for because Clint is motivational. He's dynamic and people get excited when they're around him."
One of the reasons Johnson ventures into the land of dirt racing once a year at Tony Stewart's "Prelude to the Dream" is to be around Bowyer.
"He's one of a kind," Johnson said. "His interviews he's started to flirt with it, but those that have a chance to share a beer with him ... you want him at every party, you want him anywhere and everywhere you go.
"He's just pure entertainment."
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MWR general manager Ty Norris calls Bowyer the modern-day Michael Waltrip in the sense that Bowyer understands performance, marketing and entertainment go hand in hand.
"If he goes on a roll and wins a championship and everyone gets to see him ... he could carry the sport," Norris said after announcing Peak Motor Oil would join 5-hour Energy in sponsoring Bowyer next season.
Bowyer is not to be overlooked in the championship hunt, for sure. His 10th in the Chase opener at Chicagoland was his sixth top-10 in the past seven races and left him only 15 points behind race winner Brad Keselowski heading into Sunday's race at New Hampshire (2 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN).
In three previous Chase appearances for RCR, Bowyer finished third in 2007, fifth in 2008 and 10th in 2010.
"I know we didn't finish there when we finished 10th, but we ran there," Bowyer said, the smile disappearing again. "Sixty-thousandths of an inch cost me five positions."
Few things stick in Bowyer's gut like that one. He has an uncanny ability to put misfortune in the rearview mirror so fast you might miss that he was upset.
"I get uptight, but my wick is pretty short," Bowyer said. "I flame out pretty fast."
That could work to his advantage in the Chase, where misfortune always seems to be lurking.
"There's a time to be serious, but there's a lot of times we all make it more serious than it needs to be," said Stewart, the defending Cup champion. "[Clint's] one of those guys that always has a way with keeping it fun."
You sense that whenever you're in a room with Bowyer.
"I love that in him," Waltrip said.
But what Waltrip loves most is what Bowyer brings to his organization.
"People in the stands want to watch a great race, but they're also there to be entertained," said Waltrip, one of the sport's great entertainers. "Bowyer gets that. He makes it fun, and that's energy. People feed off your energy."
It was the same way at RCR. Childress and his drivers always talked about the way Bowyer kept the mood light during the most intense moments.
"He's very serious about what he does when he gets in the race car," said MWR vice president of competition Scott Miller, who left a similar position at RCR after last season. "His attitude leading up to the weekend had kind of a calming effect.
"He keeps it light, and that makes his team not feel the pressure so much."
Crew chief Brian Pattie said Bowyer "just lessens the stress of the sport."
"A lot of people don't take him seriously because of his demeanor, but he's different come Sunday," Pattie said. "Come Sundays, when he puts his helmet on, he's intense."
Many thought Bowyer was crazy to leave a championship organization like RCR for MWR. None of us knew how good MWR could be with a little more talent at the wheel.
It turned out to be a great move. RCR is winless and placed only one of its three drivers in the Chase. Bowyer has two wins and MWR has two drivers -- Martin Truex Jr. is ninth, 21 points out -- in the Chase after having only four top-5 finishes all of last year.
But you won't hear Bowyer gloat. He hates that RCR is struggling and in a way still calls that home since he kept his house and property that is adjacent to Childress' in Welcome, N.C.
He and Childress still see each other and talk. Bowyer recently let Childress borrow his airplane for a personal appearance, and Childress is quick to remind he lets Bowyer keep the plane in his hanger.
"Business decisions are made, but at the end of the day you still have friendships," Childress said. "Clint was great. He was fun to work with. Oh, yeah, he's funny as hell."
But funny only works in NASCAR when you back it up with performance. Waltrip never would have been taken seriously as a driver or an owner had he not won two Daytona 500s.
He occasionally has to remind Bowyer of that.
"I don't think Clint is ever going to live down his quote about Michael," Miller said. "Michael at some function said, 'I need a little clarification. Is that the worst in modern time or the entire history of NASCAR?'
"That's the kind of thing that comes out around Clint and makes you laugh."
Bowyer could end up laughing all the way to the Sprint Cup banquet as a champion. New Hampshire is a place that his push could begin. He won there in the fall of 2007 and again in the fall of 2010. He started fifth and finished third there earlier this season.
Maybe this time he can put behind the bad memories of 2010.
"When we start talking about the Chase, he always brings it up," Norris said. "He felt he was set to make a great run at it and was put in jail before he came out of the box.
"The only thing that will erase that is if he can have a very clean Chase and go to Miami with a chance to win it all."
It could happen. No joke.
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