When Kentucky played Kansas last April in New Orleans for the 2012 NCAA men's basketball championship, it created an interesting work-place dynamic for Clint Bowyer. The Emporia, Kan., product was in the early months of a new job at Michael Waltrip Racing.
Bowyer's rooting interest in college hoops is Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk. Owensboro native Michael Waltrip is a devoted Kentucky Wildcats fan.
"I took Michael to that national championship game, and I knew one of us was not going to fly home very happy," Bowyer said during a recent appearance at the Toyota manufacturing plant in Georgetown. "I was hoping it was not going to be me, but it certainly was."
Taking some verbal ribbing from one of his bosses after KU fell to UK in the NCAA title game was about the only thing that went wrong in 2012 for Bowyer, who moved to MWR after six years driving in the Sprint Cup Series for Richard Childress Racing.
In his first year racing a Toyota Camry, Bowyer, 33, won three races and finished a career-best second in the Sprint Cup points standings. While previously wheeling Chevrolets for RCR, Bowyer had won five Cup races total and never finished better than third (2007) in points.
"I think it surprised everybody, including me," Bowyer said of his success in his first season with a new team. "(Switching to MWR) certainly proved to be the best decision, the best move I've ever made in my career."
Michael Waltrip, who is part owner of the team that bears his name, said signing Bowyer to drive for MWR was a big factor in that organization's 2012 breakthrough, which saw the team put two drivers, Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"Clint has been a guy, ever since he showed up, who knew how to drive one of these NASCAR race cars," Waltrip said. "He's been a Chase guy (before). An amazing talent."
Fighting Jeff Gordon
Though Bowyer won races last season at Sonoma, Richmond and Charlotte, the most memorable moment of his season came in last year's penultimate race at Phoenix.
With seven laps to go, Bowyer and Jeff Gordon were racing for a top-five spot when they collided, cutting a cut tire on Gordon's car and sending it into the wall.
Three laps later, Gordon retaliated against Bowyer, intentionally wrecking the Kansan in a collision that also collected Joey Logano.
The on-track fireworks led to an off-track explosion. Bowyer's crew attacked Gordon on pit road and the No. 24 team rallied to their driver's defense. As the brawl raged, TV cameras captured Bowyer getting out of his damaged car and sprinting toward the melee.
That all-out run was the most iconic image of the 2012 Sprint Cup season.
"Certainly, that's not how you want to be known," Bowyer said with a smile. "I would much rather be known for (being) the championship winner."
Whatever the accumulated grievances that led to Gordon's anger, most thought it was bad form to deliberately wreck Bowyer at Phoenix. In doing so, he mathematically eliminated the No. 15 car from a chance to race for the Sprint Cup championship in the next week's season finale at Miami-Homestead.
"We would have loved to have gone to Miami with a shot to win the championship," team owner Waltrip said. "That run-in at Phoenix with Jeff Gordon took that chance away from us."
Are the issues between Bowyer and Gordon now over?
"You know, it's so far in the past, I don't even think about it," Bowyer said. "But, somehow, it always comes up in the media. You look up and you are like 'Why are they still talking about that? Are you kidding me?'"
From that, I did not hear Bowyer say it was over with Gordon, did you?
The runner-up jinx?
Starting last season's final event in fourth place in the standings, Bowyer managed to work his way up to second in the season standings by finishing second in the race at Homestead (behind Gordon, ironically).
Recent history suggests finishing as runner-up in the points will make Bowyer subject in this coming season to NASCAR's version of the "runner-up jinx."
In 2010, Denny Hamlin finished second in points after dueling with Jimmie Johnson for the championship; he placed ninth the next season.
In 2011, Carl Edwards tied Tony Stewart in points, but lost the championship on a tiebreaker; he finished 15th last season.
"I don't know if there is a runner-up jinx. I've never finished second before," Bowyer said. "Here's how I see it. ... We've got to improve. We didn't win (the championship). We finished second. I don't know why in the world I would be worried about running worse."
Hamlin says the circumstances of Bowyer's second-place finish are so different than his or Edwards that it should exclude the MWR driver from any kind of runner-up "hangover."
"I think it has more to do with 'Who was in the championship battle and lost at the end,'" Hamlin says of the runner-up jinx. "Clint kind of slid into second at the very end. I don't think (the hex) really applies to Clint."
Actually, it was a different "runner-up experience" in 2012 that vexed Bowyer. After Kentucky beat Kansas, he had to fly home with his Cats fan boss, Waltrip.
"Michael," Clint Bowyer said with a smile, "was a lot louder on the way home than he was on the way out there."
Pole qualifying for Daytona 500
When: 1 p.m. TV: Fox-56
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com