As summer progressed a year ago, Clint Bowyer's career was at a crossroads. And he knew it.
Had it been entirely up to him, his first choice would have been to maintain the status quo. He had been discovered by Richard Childress and wanted to remain driving for Richard Childress Racing.
It wasn't until September that it occurred to him, with a sense of finality, that circumstances weren't going to allow that to happen. Looming as part of those circumstances was that the folks at Michael Waltrip Racing wanted Bowyer to come drive for them, and they were pushing their sales pitch hard.
Bowyer was merely a piece of the larger puzzle MWR was attempting to construct, but he was an important piece. Also agreeing to come to MWR from RCR at roughly the same time was Scott Miller, who became MWR's competition director. About a month later, the deal was finalized to bring in Mark Martin, who drives on a part-time basis but dishes out valuable veteran advice full-time.
Michael Waltrip, who co-owns the team that bears his name along with investor Rob Kauffman, felt all along, however, that Bowyer was more or less the linchpin to the movement toward huge improvement. Waltrip wanted a young, marquee driver in the seat previously occupied by the steady, loyal-but-older and far-less flashy David Reutimann. Basically, Waltrip had to talk Bowyer into it -- and Sunday on the road course at Sonoma, where Bowyer won in the No. 15 Toyota for MWR, owner and driver rightly rejoiced in the most visible fruits of their mutual labor yet.
"Thanks to Clint for [taking] the risk, for taking the leap of faith. I'm glad he's able to be here today," Waltrip said afterward.
Bowyer added, "I'm proud of everybody at MWR for making this happen. What a wonderful opportunity at this stage in my career to make this jump [to a new team] and make it work."
Two paths meet
For a guy whose background is steeped in racing late models on dirt in the Midwest, Bowyer has been surprisingly stout on the tricky 1.99-mile road course at Sonoma ever since he burst onto the Sprint Cup Series scene in 2006 as a full-time driver of Chevrolets for RCR. Bowyer had caught the Childress' eye in 2003, when he finished second in an ARCA race at Nashville. From there it was a meteoric rise to NASCAR's top national touring series.
When Bowyer essentially became a free agent as the final year of his RCR contract wound down last summer, he was a hot commodity. Richard Petty Motorsports pursued him, as did MWR. But in truth, he really wanted to stay at RCR.
That's what was comfortable to him, and he knew Childress believed in him. Jumping to another team, driving for another manufacturer and owner, would indeed be a calculated risk. Bowyer had to decide if it was worth taking, along with the boatload of money the others would offer.
Waltrip recalled how Bowyer signed his new contract with MWR on a Tuesday and how the driver came calling with a hard question for him on Wednesday.
"Y'all do a good job off the track. But can you give me some cars I could win with?" Bowyer wanted to know.
"Yeah," Waltrip said. "We'll do just that."
To fulfill that promise at Sonoma was special for Waltrip because of his organization's early struggles at the track and, well, pretty much everywhere else. Sunday's victory was the third in the five-year history of the team, the first since July 2010, and the first that didn't belong to Reutimann but instead to the group that had replaced him.
"This place just reminds me on how mightily Michael Waltrip Racing struggled when we started back in 2007," Waltrip said. "We came out here and put Terry Labonte in my car just so we could be sure of making the race. We talked to [road course specialist] Robby Gordon about driving for us -- and that was just five short years ago that we were here and wondering what our future was like and how we were going to survive.
"We probably appreciate this more than anybody ever could because we know how close we were to just not being around any more, just six months out of our start. So to stand up there on the pit box and to be able to cheer with [Bowyer's crew chief] Brian Pattie and the team and see Clint take the checkered flag after all we have been through, it's just really special."
The right decision
The victory, the sixth of Bowyer's career in addition to being his first of the season and first with MWR, also validated his decision to make the switch from what was comfortable to what might prove to be best for his career.
It wasn't just that Bowyer won at Sonoma. It was that his MWR teammates -- part-timer Brian Vickers in the No. 55 and full-timer Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 56 -- also ran up front much of the day. Vickers finished fourth, while Truex had to settle for 22nd after some hard luck at the end. But all the MWR cars were stout.
The win also moved Bowyer up to seventh in the points standings. Despite his late troubles Sunday, Truex remains ninth and has been having a fine year. The No. 55 car, which has been driven by Martin, Vickers and Waltrip, has remained remarkably competitive no matter who is behind the wheel, thanks in large part to the brilliant guidance of crew chief Rodney Childers.
The facts are building in the case that MWR is headed in the right direction, and headed there fast. Furthermore, it is an organization that now appears to have staying power. It is, quite simply, the perfect place for a driver like Bowyer to be as the 33-year-old enters what should be the prime of his career.
"I'm super excited for everybody involved to be in Victory Lane with this group so early in the season. It's a dream come true," Bowyer said. "I'm very proud of all our partners, especially everybody at MWR. To switch teams like I did was a huge risk, and it was obviously a chance for me to showcase my talents. I'm proud of everybody back home at the shop. Thank you, guys, for building us real good race cars."
It also has Bowyer thinking about what he and MWR can accomplish together moving forward. He knows something about making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, having done so with RCR three times in a four-year stretch that included final points finishes of third in 2007 and fifth in 2008, respectively.
"This is huge toward the Chase and everything else," Bowyer said of his win. "This is big for our confidence level, for this team and MWR. It's a young organization that's going to be in this sport a long time, and I'm proud to be a part of it."
Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer