READY FOR YOUR CLOSE-UP?
Nobody could keep up with the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in the 2007 Chase, but nobody came closer to doing it than Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer, driving the No. 07 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, got his first Cup victory in the first Chase race at New Hampshire and hung near the top of the standings the rest of the way. He wound up third to emerge as the year's breakout driver.
Bowyer said going to the Cup banquet in New York after the season gave him all the motivation he needs to keep reaching higher.
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"I remember in 2002 when I won the Midwest championship, going to the weekly racing banquet," Bowyer said. "I had never been to anything like that in my life. That was the weekly racing series.
"The Cup banquet made me want to go back and stand on that stage where Jimmie Johnson did and smile at everybody and look down on everybody else and get that trophy."
Bowyer said he has always been a little bit anxious when the time comes to start over again. This year has been no exception.
"That has never gone away from me in all the years I've been in racing," he said. "If I won 30 races the year before at a track, I still went back on opening night and was worried about beating them.
"I called Jeff Burton before the test at Daytona this year. I was freaking out. I was nervous about the season and worried that I'd forget how to drive and we wouldn't be any good. His answer was, you wouldn't be a good race car driver if you didn't worry.
"Richard told me (Dale) Earnhardt used to come up to him and say, `I don't know if I can get it done for you this year. I don't know if I can do it.' He was nervous, too.
"I think confidence is the No. 1 thing in sports and all of life. If you have confidence you can go out and get it done, and you believe in the people around you, then you can go out and get it done."
Which driver could take a big step up in Sprint Cup racing this year? Here are three candidates:
Martin Truex Jr.
Got his first win at Dover, then battled his way into the '07 Chase, where he wound up 11th. His success bolstered Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the face of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s departure. How will he take to the role of DEI's standard-bearer?
Juan Pablo Montoya
Won on the road course in Sonoma, Calif. His best finish on an oval was second at Indianapolis en route to rookie of the year. The former F1 star appears to be a quick learner. If he keeps improving at the rate he has, watch out.
Got his first career win in the No. 25 Hendrick Chevy in the Coca-Cola 600. He moves to the No. 5 team that helped Kyle Busch make the Chase. Highly regarded crew chief Alan Gustafson and his group could be the perfect complement to Mears' talents.