Clint Bowyer just settled into his seat for Daytona 500 Media Day and finished answering the first question when an event organizer announced that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had arrived.
“Oh, there goes my interview,” Bowyer said with a laugh. “Thank you guys it’s been a great talk. See you next year.”
But when it comes to compelling stories, Bowyer has one to tell.
The 33-year-old Emporia, Kansas native will start his eighth season in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. After eight years with Richard Childress Racing in Cup and Nationwide, Bowyer moved to Michael Waltrip Racing for 2012 and enjoyed his best season to date.
Throughout the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Bowyer’s accomplishments were overshadowed as Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson battled it out for the title. But the No. 15 team remained in the hunt during the final 10 races.
When Johnson experienced a gear issue in the season finale at Miami Homestead Speedway, Bowyer capitalized and finished second in the point standings.
For Bowyer, it was a pleasant surprise. No one anticipated that when Bowyer left RCR, long considered one of the anchor organizations of NASCAR, he would not only post a career-high three wins, 10 top-fives and 23 top-10 finishes let alone become the runner-up for the championship.
“Thanks,” Bowyer replied in a self-deprecatory manner as he’s reminded what the initial outlook was for the No. 15 team at the start of last year. Yet with the investment that co-owner Rob Kauffman made with the team, including the upgrades in personnel and technology over the last few years, it has elevated MWR into one of the elite operations in the sport.
Through Bowyer’s past experiences at RCR, he is cognizant of the potential for complacency after a successful season. And after committing himself to the organization, Bowyer warns of falling into that trap in his current situation.
"We had a great year last year,” Bowyer said. “Right now in 2013, the year doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got to prove ourselves all over again and it’s even harder this time. Nobody expected us to do that. We didn’t have any pressure and we didn’t have any expectations. We just went out and had fun and enjoyed every week and just naturally or effortlessly had success week in and week out.
“It is different now. We’ve got expectations — not from you guys (the media), not from the fans, but from within. We expect to do that and I’ve been around long enough to know that can be a danger.”
Another “danger” that has plagued runner-ups over the last few years has been the second-place hangover. For drivers that exerted tremendous energy to make the Chase and contend for the title, the challenge has been to amass an equal amount of fight the following year. For Bowyer, finishing second last year was anything but a letdown.
"People call it a jinx – whatever,” Bowyer said. “Here’s the thing, any kind of sport – pick the Olympics. A guy trains his whole life, especially the years leading up to it and finishes second. That’s a huge letdown. We had nothing to be ashamed of to finish in second place.
“There was just one great thing after another happening at MWR last year. We won races with a team built from scratch over the offseason. Went into a team that had never been proven before and went out and proved a big point. We finished second in the points and had one bad weekend over the whole year — truly had one bad weekend that just sucked. I’ll take that any day. I will sign up for that right now."
That weekend – at Phoenix where he was dumped by four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who accused Bowyer of racing him too hard – earned the driver of the No. 15 Toyota Camry more recognition than his accomplishments on the track. While the feud still looms, Bowyer would just as soon leave the incident in the rearview mirror and concentrate on 2013.
On Thursday, Bowyer will start ninth in the second Budweiser Duel. While he’s proved his restrictor plate prowess with two wins at Talladega, Bowyer’s not equaled that success at Daytona where he’s posted just two top-five finishes in 14 starts.
Still, Bowyer appears encouraged by the progress MWR has made with the new Generation 6 Toyota Camry.
“Certainly, we’re going to work hard,” Bowyer said. “I like the things I’ve seen. I like the testing. Daytona – our car was fast and more importantly we went to Charlotte and intermediate race tracks and had good speed right off the truck. The very first time I was ever in a car – one of the Gen-6 cars on an intermediate track was at Charlotte and we went right to the top of the board and was there the whole morning session. I was like, ‘Put it back in the box and let’s go racing.’ That showed me that hopefully we picked up right where we left off."
After MWR qualified two drivers – Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. – for the Chase last season, team owner Michael Waltrip acknowledges that the questions he answers now regarding his organization “are a lot more fun” than the inquisition he received prior to 2012’s successful run.
“It seems like we’re more respected,” Waltrip said. “I don’t think if we just bounced in and had 2012 right off the bat that we would have gained that type of respect. We worked really hard to be able to enjoy some success in 2012.
“Our teams appear to be on plane with the best. So we just expect to win more races than we did last year and race for the championship this year.”