Clint Bowyer has one of the quirkier personalities in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota always has a zinger ready, a comeback planned, a retort prepared.
He's joked about the top speeds capable from the Generation-6 car -- "I'm thinking somewhere in the 300s." -- earlier this year during testing. He's playfully analyzed why five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson won't fly in U.S. Air Force Thunderbird jets -- "Jimmie Johnson won't ride in the Thunderbirds because he don't want to get sick and be made fun of. ? I'm just going to go ahead and call him out. He's scared."
That kind of sarcasm, those bits of humor, have long been Bowyer's preferred manner of communication. His personality hasn't changed over the years. What has changed are his results on the race track and the team with which he is associated.
"I've been able to kind of come into my own and be my own self a little bit more since going to (Michael Waltrip Racing)," Bowyer said Tuesday on NASCAR's weekly teleconference with reporters. "Just all of my surroundings kind of enabled me to be who I am, so it probably comes out a little bit more.
"But more importantly, probably just running better. ? It's gone (from) just kind of being one of the boys to one of the elite, and it's because of making the change to MWR. I think you just see more of me."
The NASCAR world has seen a lot of Bowyer recently following the driver's breakout 2012 in which he won three races and finished second in the points standings. It was Bowyer's first year with MWR, and he was the organization's first driver to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- teammate Martin Truex Jr. also qualified for the Chase as the 10th entrant.
Their spots in the 12-driver field that comprises NASCAR's 10-week sprint for the title were secured at Richmond International Raceway in the final race before the Chase last September. Bowyer won that event, leading the final 88 laps in a performance that gave his team a jolt that lasted the rest of the season.
The Sprint Cup Series returns to Richmond this Saturday for the Toyota Owners 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX). In addition to winning the most recent race at the .75-mile track, Bowyer has eight top-10s in 14 career starts there, including four of the past five races.
"Richmond is one of the coolest race tracks on the circuit," Bowyer said. "I think it's a perfect blend of speed -- as a fan you get that sensation of speed -- but it's also short-track racing at its best. A fan can see us rooting and gouging and beating and banging on each other and really putting on a good show. I wish there was five more of them across the country, but obviously, selfishly, that's because I run well there.
"Once you win at a race track, every time you go back there after that, there's always something you can carry in, and that's confidence."
Short tracks are Bowyer's specialty, considering the Emporia, Kan., native grew up racing on the small ovals dotted throughout the Midwest. In his eighth season on the Sprint Cup tour, though, the 33-year-old has become comfortable on all types of tracks. While two of his three top-fives this year have come on the series' shortest ovals -- Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway -- Bowyer is coming off a fifth-place finish Sunday at Kansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile intermediate track.
At ninth place in the Sprint Cup Series standings and heading to his self-professed favorite track, Bowyer appears to be avoiding the hangover that seemingly plagues those who finish second in the standings. Most recently, Carl Edwards barely lost out to Tony Stewart for the 2011 title. In 2012, Edwards didn't make the Chase.
"Obviously everybody talks about that (second-place) jinx and everything else. It just wasn't the case with us," Bowyer said. "The reason I didn't think so is everybody else that had finished second ?? looking at Carl in particular, he lost by a point ? just the devastation from that can carry over not just within a driver, but everybody across the board on the race team.
"That being said, we were the first year in with a brand-new team, we finished second in the championship, won three races. There was absolutely nothing to be hanging your head on, holding your head down. We were all super pumped up and couldn't wait to get started in 2013."
That preseason feeling reached far beyond Bowyer. It came from the top, with Michael Waltrip setting the tone and saying he wanted his drivers to win more in 2013. Bowyer's crew got swept up in the momentum, too.
Crew chief Brian Pattie learned quickly the best way to communicate with Bowyer, whose mind tends to wander in the race car at times. Pattie has endeared himself to the driver so much that, while discussing the No. 15 team, another of Bowyer's personal attributes shone through -- humbleness.
"It's all about the people you have around you," Bowyer said. "Brian Pattie, everybody on our (team) is just really, really on. I've got an awesome group, from the crew chief like I said, to engineers, the over?the?wall crew has really turned the corner and gotten a lot better this year. We just keep perfecting what we've got. (It's) a great program that I'm a part of, and I think the results are kind of speaking for themselves."
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