Clint Bowyer is ready to go racing … and lion-hunting

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Clint Bowyer’s going lion-hunting.

This is not some cheap metaphor about how he’s going to chase down the biggest names in NASCAR. No, he’s literally going lion-hunting. The Monday after the Daytona 500 (unless he wins), Bowyer will head to Arizona to see if he can scare up a mountain lion or two. No, really.

Bowyer does plenty of hunting, even if it’s not always of the bow variety, as you’d think from those omnipresent Five-Hour Energy ads. (“You can’t really be walking around with a rifle in commercials these days.”) He’ll get away in the offseason when he can, and when he can’t, he’ll sneak in a little carnage during the year. (Last year, he bagged an eight-foot gator in Louisiana, and when it was stuffed by a Texas taxidermist, it was too big to fit anywhere but the back of the No. 15 hauler.)

Bowyer is one of the few current drivers you could actually see spending time in a freezing, fog-shrouded hunting blind. And for that reason, he’s one of the few drivers who hits all three marks of a successful driver: old-school credibility, talent, and sponsor satisfaction. He’s got a huge hill of public perception to climb (you know, drivers are all vanilla, nobody speaks their mind, et cetera), but as Brad Keselowski has shown, it’s possible to break out of the stereotype.

Nobody expected it to go this way. When Bowyer started the year with a new team, a new manufacturer, a new sponsor and a new crew, not even he thought he’d be anywhere near those heights by Homestead.

“The natural instinct is, change is dangerous, change is scary,” Bowyer said. “Last year is proof that change isn’t always a bad thing. Literally picking up and starting over from scratch is what I did. Every face that I worked with was new.”

And it’s not like this was a foregone conclusion; at the time, the move from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip Racing was seen as a step down, if not off a cliff. Bowyer admitted to more than a little trepidation about his decision, both from inside and outside his circle.

“The media and everybody around you sure gives you a feeling about your decision when they’re asking, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” he laughed. And he was reminded, often, about how he once called his new owner Michael Waltrip “the worst driver in NASCAR”: “Ate a little crow with that, for sure. That’s why you never burn bridges. That’s a prime example of what can happen.”

Still, he started solid; by the fourth race of the season, he was in the top 12, and he’d remain in the top 10 from June onward. He won at Sonoma and Richmond, two tracks about as dissimilar as you could imagine. His second-place finish at Homestead, combined with a late-season fade by Jimmie Johnson, vaulted him up two spots into the runner-up spot, 39 points behind Keselowski.

It was impressive, yes, but skill on the track is only one part of the puzzle. Plenty of extremely talented drivers still have trouble attracting sponsors. The trick in 21st-century NASCAR is figuring out how to preserve enough of yourself to be able to look at yourself in the mirror, while still molding yourself into a sponsor-friendly, media-ready action figure. Some drivers remain themselves, to put it politely, so staunchly that sponsors want nothing to do with them. Some drivers are so eager to please sponsors that you can almost see the puppet strings at every press conference.

“We’re in this business as drivers to win races and do good on the race track,” he says, “but in doing so we have to build brands not only for ourselves but our sponsors. It’s fun when you can have a sponsor that directly speaks about you. I’m wide-open, full of energy all the time. People ask, ‘Have you always been on Five-Hour Energy?’”

See what he did there? Bowyer’s simple-country-boy routine conceals a guy who knows exactly what’s expected of him. He sits down for an interview, and inside the first two minutes has worked in plugs for both the new Gen 6 car, on behalf of NASCAR, and the Camry, on behalf of his manufacturer Toyota.

Of course, like any driver in the multimillion-dollar celebrity machine that NASCAR has become, even Bowyer falls prey to a diva moment now and then. Witness this exchange between Bowyer and SPEED TV host Rutledge Wood from Thursday’s Media Day, in which Bowyer gripes about a local Atlanta radio show that left him on hold for … three minutes.

Three minutes? We’d consider that lightning-fast service from our cable company. Anyway, Bowyer did eventually reach out on Twitter with an offer to mend fences. And if nothing else, the mini-spat shows how maybe the virtually unceasing media access to drivers might not be the best thing for the sport.

“Honestly, I’m stir-crazy,” he said. “I’m over talking about it. I’m ready to get down to business.”

Because of the rules in the latest iteration of the season-starting Sprint Unlimited race, Bowyer wasn’t in Saturday night’s lineup; he didn’t win a pole last year. He took to Twitter to vent his frustration: “I have officially reset my 2013 goals.... Win a damn pole, this sucks!!!”

Over and above winning a damn pole, Bowyer has a clear idea of what he wants to do in 2013, and it’s exactly what he’s tried to do every year. Only now, he’s looking like a potential championship contender, and he’ll set the stage accordingly.

“Your goals are the same from the first time I won races and made the Chase in 2007: start out the year, win your first race,” he says. “Get that footprint in the ground. Then build on that win. Hit that Chase in stride, hit it on a positive note. That’s why we’re here, to win championships.”

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