KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Chris Bowyer had made the drive up Interstate 35 from Emporia to Kansas City many times in the past. There was always a race car of some kind in tow and what can be loosely described as a race crew jammed into his vehicle. Always, always, Elvis was on the tape player.
Bowyer made the drive again Wednesday afternoon and, of course, Elvis was filling the truck with music. But this time, there was a new crew guy along.
As they bumped their way into the muddy paddock at Lakeside Speedway, the new guy made a remark about the bumps and the mud.
Chris Bowyer didn't want to hear it.
"This," Bowyer said as he scanned the Lakeside grounds, "is God’s country."
Chris is the father of NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer. Together, before stardom, they used to make the ride north to race to Lakeside. More often than a lot of the other regulars at Lakeside liked, they would make the ride south late on Friday nights with a trophy and a check.
Late Wednesday afternoon, the Bowyers were back at Lakeside. They were there to drive in the Midwest Late-model Racing Association event. They were there to win, but they were also there to enjoy.
"“This is awesome. Man, I love coming here. It all started here," said Clint, who on Saturday night beat Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and the rest of the Sprint Cup stars to win at Richmond International Raceway.
Clint Bowyer was a habitual winner at Lakeside. A scant couple of years before placing third in the 2007 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, he was a track champion at a place with the reputation of being one of the best, most competitive weekly event venues in the country.
Drivers that ESPN and Fox never heard of, but could have been in Cup or Nationwide or Craftsman trucks, populate the place. Drivers like Tim Karrick, Kerry Davis, Tom Charles, Gene Claxton.
Clint Bowyer said those guys had as much talent as he has, but, "We had the aspirations."
Sort of, Lakeside owner Marc Olson said.
Asked if Bowyer was the best ever to race Lakeside, Olson didn't hesitate. "Yep. He was the best I've ever seen in traffic. He anticipates every movement. He anticipates where other cars are going. He's incredible."
The old hands at Lakeside lined up to slap Bowyer's back Wednesday. They smiled, congratulated him and then politely gave Bowyer his space. One asked if Kyle Busch was the little brat he appears to be.
The MLRA that raced at Lakeside Wednesday is a national touring series. Most drivers are better funded than the track's Friday night teams, and they travel in from Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and other places in the region.
One driver, Mark Voigt of Marine, Ill., said he'd raced Bowyer before. In Wisconsin and on pavement.
"We had a little scuffle, you might say," Voigt said.
Was he good?
"He didn't do anything spectacular," Voigt said. "No, I didn't foresee him doing what he’s doing now. He got it because he knew somebody, not because he won here. I guarantee you. I'm not beating up on Clint, though.
"He's there (in Cup), he deserves to be there."
J.D. Green, a Lakeside official and longtime officer in the Central Auto Racing Boosters organization, understands what most competitors at Lakeside and other short tracks feel when they see somebody like Bowyer.
"Everybody dreams about making it to the top," Green said. "Some are too old and it (the opportunity to drive in NASCAR) has passed them by. Others are just kids. But it's what they all dream about."
Clint Bowyer, who finished fifth in the main event, didn't drive up from Emporia with his father Wednesday. He flew in and had a jet waiting for him after the Lakeside event because he had to be in Darlington, S.C., Thursday to get ready for the Cup and Nationwide races there this weekend.
But as he talked about being back at Lakeside, about how much fun and how many good memories he had at the place, a couple things appeared clear. You got the feeling that he kind of wishes he were driving home after the event, and if he was, Elvis would be blasting in his and his dad’s ear.
"Oh, yeah, Elvis," Bowyer said. "It’s still on in the hauler."