KANSAS CITY – He relives the memory whenever he returns.
For Clint Bowyer, there was a time when racing meant little more than keeping a dream alive. He chased the vision at Lakeside Speedway and gazed into the horizon after leaving the dirt track in Kansas City, Kan., picturing a day when he had made it. He saw the early construction of Kansas Speedway and thought it would be a feat if he raced at such an impressive facility one day. He wanted to be a star.
Bowyer will be reminded how far his career has come when he makes his eighth career Cup Series race start Sunday at Kansas Speedway, located about 100 miles northeast of his native Emporia, Kan. The STP 400 is a homecoming, but the race also represents a chance for him to achieve something new: He has yet to claim the checkered flag in a Cup Series event at the track he enjoys most.
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Once, he dreamed of starting at Kansas Speedway. Now, he’s hungry to win.
“All the years growing up racing at Lakeside, just watching that place (Kansas Speedway) go from a housing development … to what it is today is unbelievable,” Bowyer told FOXSports.com. “All the years of driving by there on my way to the racetrack (and) on my way home from Lakeside – dreaming of being able to race there – it’s unbelievable how everything has changed.”
A lot has changed for Bowyer too. He’s in his seventh full-time season at NASCAR’s highest level, his first with Michael Waltrip Racing. He has five career Cup Series victories, 32 top-five and 98 top-10 finishes.
He has logged more than 86,000 miles living his dream on racing’s elite stage. Each season, events at Kansas Speedway give him a chance to revisit his roots.
But there’s pressure with the Kansas trips too. Make no mistake: This is where Bowyer wants to look his best. More than anywhere else, this is where he wants to breakthrough, and some around him notice an urgency to produce.
“We feel extra pressure as a team to make sure we come here with the best,” said Ty Norris, Michael Waltrip Racing’s general manager. “We want it to be the best, because we know how much a home win would mean to him. We do put a lot of effort into every event, but this one is always circled on the calendar for him. … You probably don’t always realize you’ve made it to your top level until you go back to your home, because home reminds you of your roots. I think it’s one of the few times all year he’ll say, ‘Man, I’ve kind of made it.'”
Bowyer has made it, but returning to Kansas has produced mixed results. He has finished as high as second in 2007 and as low as 21st in 2009. He has fallen outside the top 15 only twice, so he never has been far from earning a coveted celebration with friends and family.
Last season produced another near miss. He was 18th at the STP 400 in June, but he was seventh at the Hollywood Casino 400 in October. The most recent showing was his best at the facility since his career high.
Of course, Bowyer is Kansas Speedway’s sentimental favorite, but there are other drivers from the region who want to make a victory memory of their own at the 1 ½-mile track. Carl Edwards (Columbia, Mo.) has four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in nine career starts here. Meanwhile, Jamie McMurray (Joplin, Mo.) has been in the top 10 twice in 10 career starts.
Through seven races this season, Bowyer (10th overall) leads the trio in the Sprint Cup Series standings with 219 points – 54 behind leader Greg Biffle. Edwards (11th) has 215, and McMurray (23rd) follows with 160.
“We’ve been running well,” Bowyer said. “We got close at Martinsville (finished 10th). We had a shot at it. To be able to roll in here with some momentum on your side and have things going well is a breath of fresh air. … Obviously, we’re doing something good. We’ve got to keep that ball rolling. And certainly a good run here – or better yet a win here at Kansas – would be icing on the cake.”
Winning at Kansas Speedway would be sweet for him. Bowyer used to be a dirt-track dreamer, a man who earned $10 an hour at an Emporia body shop while chasing a vision. He used to wonder if everything would work out.
On Sunday, he will chase victory at his home track again. The early memories made him the driver he has become.
He wouldn’t mind creating another in Victory Lane.