The 12th man

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – Rolling up Sixth Avenue, just a block south of Radio City Music Hall, Clint Bowyer is scrunched down in the backseat of a black Lincoln Navigator, wrenching his neck upward to see as much of the passing skyscrapers as possible.

"How far is Times Square?" he asks the Pakistani man who's been hired to chauffer Bowyer, who's in town for his first Chase for the Nextel Cup media day.

"Two blocks," the car's driver replies.

"Can you take me there?" Bowyer asks.

As the driver waits to turn left, an antsy taxicab driver honks his horn from behind.

Bowyer, who grew up slowly in Emporia, Kan., population 26,760, doesn't understand this sort of impatience.

"If I had a cup of coffee," he says, "I'd throw it on his windshield."

If you hadn't already guessed, New York City is new to Bowyer, which right away tells us that he's never before sat at NASCAR's big table. This is, after all, where NASCAR fetes its best drivers with a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria each December.

But even though he's here now, Bowyer still is viewed, for the most part, as a Chase field-filler – a driver who might contend down the road, but isn't ready to do so quite yet.

Why the low expectations? Simple. Bowyer has yet to win a Nextel Cup race.

"That's a huge part," admits Bowyer, who is in just his second full season of Nextel Cup racing. "Once you get your first win, it makes you."

But, he wants to remind everyone, he didn't just squeak into the Chase. He actually qualified ninth, ahead of three other drivers who have won races this season, including teammate Kevin Harvick. But his lack of wins leaves him 12th in points as the Chase begins.

"Everybody had the same 26 races to be a part of this, and everybody has problems, and he's put himself in a position to be here," Harvick said. "Obviously, he has to answer the question about having not won a race, but it's better to have to answer that question than answer questions about not being in the Chase."

At 28, Bowyer is part of the new breed of Nextel Cup drivers. Because he hasn't had the success that, say, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have, and because he hasn't benefited from an association with the sport's most popular driver, as Martin Truex Jr. has by being Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate, Bowyer has remained relatively anonymous compared to his contemporaries.

But he also seems in no hurry to become "big time."

As he rides around Manhattan in the backseat of the Navigator, going from one media obligation to the next, he acts with the wonderment of a 10-year-old making his first trip to the city, not as a famous athlete with a Rolex on his wrist and a private jet waiting to whisk him away. Bowyer is, at heart, a small-town boy, and he's not up for pretending to be anything different.

"I'd be a mess here," he admits. "I'd walk into a bar, have a few drinks, walk outside and spend the rest of my day trying to figure out where I was going."

His only other trip to New York City was a two-hour pit stop last year to fulfill a sponsor obligation. This visit lasts slightly longer and has him bouncing around midtown Manhattan, from an appearance on "Fox and Friends," where he's asked what he thinks of Rudy Giuliani – "I have no clue about politics," he acknowledges – to a visit to Sirius Satellite Radio, where he hopes to (but doesn't) meet 50 Cent, who's in the house; and he survives a session with media and fans at ESPN Zone in Times Square.

In all, Bowyer makes four appearances over nine hours, all the while itching to hop on his plane and head to New Hampshire, where the Chase for the Nextel Cup kicks off on Sunday.

"Now that I'm in this thing, I feel rejuvenated," he says. "Like, I can't wait to get to the track. I can't wait to practice to see what we got."

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