MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Clint Bowyer's walk from the tunnel at Martinsville Speedway to the No. 07 Nextel Cup hauler took longer than it did a year ago.
He didn't care.
That's because his hauler was about 10 spots closer to the front end of the garage where the top teams park.
Or NASCAR's high-rent district, as team owner Richard Childress likes to remind him.
"That's a good thing," Bowyer said. "This is where you want to be. It's funny, one of the first things you think about when you get to the track is realize you're walking a long way to get to your hauler and it's not right out of the tunnel.
"The further you have to walk here the better."
What he didn't have was experience, the comfort of going to places such as Bristol and Martinsville a dozen or more times.
"Experience at these tracks, that's hard to beat," Bowyer said. "When you get into something like this and are racing against the best drivers in the world, these guys have been here 10, 15 times or more.
"That's hard to beat. You can get your stuff there and run the laps with them, but you can't consistently do it. Now our consistency is starting to show."
Bowyer was 16th in points after six races a year ago. He had one top-10 -- sixth at Daytona -- and three finishes of 22nd or worse.
He already has three top-10s this season and only one finish outside the top 18.
"It won't surprise me for him to have more success than any of us, not only in the future but currently," Burton said. "Clint's up on it and we're going to have to deal with Clint for a long time -- and that's a good thing."
It's definitely a good thing for Childress. The emergence of Bowyer has taken RCR to an even higher level than it was a year ago when Burton and Harvick were battling for the championship.
Burton is second in points, 28 behind Jeff Gordon heading into Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway. Bowyer is seventh and Harvick is 10th.
"We've gotten stronger," Childress said. "If we can get a couple of engine issues behind us, we'll be good."
While Bowyer never felt like an outcast a year ago, he said team meetings have been more enjoyable with all three drivers in the top 10.
"It used to be more of an A, B and C team," he said. "We're getting closer to being a part of that equation a lot more and doing away with A, B and C.
"People are listening more. Now if I say something I think the other guys are agreeing more. We're able to work off of each other."
Bowyer also is being more assertive with his opinion.
"He's always said his piece," Childress said. "He's just more comfortable with his role as a Cup driver. Last year, moving up and being a rookie, he did a lot of listening. Now he's saying more."
One thing that hasn't changed is Bowyer's happy-go-lucky attitude. He's still the class clown, the one everybody loves to pick on.
That never was more the case than last year at Dover when Bowyer watched his car slide down the track after he'd climbed out to celebrate a Busch Series victory.
"He's always got respect," Childress said. "But the neat thing is we can give him a bunch of [grief], because he's that kind of guy you can have fun with.
"He's just a down-to-earth person. So many of these guys come in and are plastic. Clint is what he is. He's just a helluva race car driver and a lot of fun to be around."
"He keeps things light around the shop," he said. "He keeps things light at the racetrack even when things aren't going well. He's really good for our team. He brings a lot of youthful enthusiasm."
Bowyer was able to maintain that enthusiasm last season even when things were going against him. The only time he lost his sense of humor was after Tony Stewart crashed him at Pocono while he was within striking distance of the championship chase.
"Last year, it seemed like we couldn't do anything right," said Bowyer, who finished 17th in points. "If we went left we should have gone right.
"This year, things are definitely going our way. That sure makes it a lot easier."
Harvick wouldn't be surprised to see Bowyer in Victory Lane soon. Texas is a possibility. Bowyer led three laps and was fifth there in November.
"He is going to win a race or two," Harvick said. "We've just got to get him to complete the whole day when he's got that good car. He has done a great job and has been a great piece of our puzzle."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.