Bowyer taking charge after big change
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Clint Bowyer sat on the back of what was then his No. 07 hauler, his eyes squinting as he stared into a bright sun. It had been less than a week since team owner Richard Childress had told him he was switching to a new team in 2009 and he wasn't entirely convinced that was the right move.
"I had probably the same reaction everybody else had," Bowyer recalled. "What?"
It was easy to understand Bowyer's concerns then. He finished third in the final 2007 Sprint Cup standings with crew chief Gil Martin and company and was headed for a fifth-place finish in 2008.
You don't break up a team like that. Not unless you're crazy.
Or unless you think a change can take performance to another level.
That's was Childress' thought. He didn't make the switch just to jump-start his fourth team or to simply give new sponsor General Mills a proven driver. He made the switch because he believed there was something holding back Bowyer from seriously contending for a title.
Issues, vice president of competition Mike Dillon called them.
"There were some things between the group there that hurt the race team," he said without elaborating. "You've got to have at this high level 100 percent belief in one another and confidence all the way across the board in everybody.
"If it's not, it can hurt the team and hurt performance."
Maybe there was something to that. Four races into the season, Bowyer and his new team, the No. 33, are second in points behind four-time champion Jeff Gordon. They have three top-10s and two top-5s.
Bowyer had only five top-5s in '07, when he finished third.
"It was hard to leave those guys," said Bowyer, who spent this past weekend off back home in Emporia, Kan. "Gil has been a huge part of my career and getting me to where I'm at. They're family to me.
"But we weren't getting the job done. It was time for a change."
Most of the garage would love to say they weren't getting the job done like Bowyer and Martin. Their average finish of 14.1 last season wasn't that far off of the 10.5 Jimmie Johnson posted in winning his third straight title.
In many ways, Bowyer's early numbers mirror the start of Johnson's career. In his first three years, Johnson had 40 top-10s, five less than Bowyer, and finished fifth, second and second in the standings.
The difference is wins. Johnson had 14 during those first three seasons. Bowyer had two.
"I'm after championships," Bowyer said. "I look at [Dale] Earnhardt's career and he won championships with a lot of different crew chiefs and crews at RCR. Richard was to the point we weren't getting the job done it's time to change.
"Change isn't always bad."
Not judging by Bowyer's start. He and crew chief Shane Wilson are the early surprise of 2009. They're showing the consistency of a veteran team, not a new one.
But as Dillon reminded, this really isn't a new team. Many of the crew members, including Wilson, came from Bowyer's championship Nationwide Series team of 2008. The gaps were filled in by top guys from other teams that were laid off because of the ailing economy.
"It was probably as easy to add this new team as you could possibly have done," Dillon said. "We had planned on doing it a year ago, but the financial part didn't work out."
But it's not just about talent.
"The talent was good with the 07 team and everybody across the board," Bowyer said. "We just lacked communication to get that extra oomph out of our team or program. That's what we struggled with, having that communication that would raise us to the next level."
One could go back to Johnson again. While the 48 team churned out top-five seasons with ease, there was something about the communication between the driver and crew chief Chad Knaus that wasn't exactly right in 2005.
Owner Rick Hendrick solved that problem with what has become his famous "milk and cookies" speech. He told the two that if they were going to act like children he was going to treat them like children.
Since then, the communication has been more open, with Knaus relying on Johnson's input more than he did before. They have three straight titles to show for it.
Instead of a speech, Childress made a change, which he also hoped would benefit new driver Casey Mears because he would inherit a veteran team.
"We probably lean on him more than he was getting leaned on in the other deal," Wilson said of Bowyer. "He's probably taking more a part of the team."
Dillon said the difference between Martin and Wilson is Wilson forces Bowyer to be more involved with changes to the car. He also senses more maturity in Bowyer.
"I can hear it on the radio, the tone of his voice," he said, sounding like Hendrick when he talked of Johnson in 2006. "Right now there are situations he could have gotten out of his mind with. He's keeping that under his control more.
"He's bettering himself mentally, knowing he's always had the talent. That means a lot."
It all looks good now, but there still were reservations when the switch was made. Bowyer had them. Dillon had them. Even Wilson had them. He knew if Bowyer went anywhere but up, he would be looked at as the reason.
Nobody has them now.
"At the start of the season everybody already had written us out of the Chase," Bowyer said. "It's way too early to tell, but we're in this thing to win races and win championships.
"It has been refreshing. I'm excited about our start to the season. More important, I'm excited about our potential."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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