Shawnee — Clint Bowyer remembers the day he got the call at the body shop of the Ford dealership in Emporia, where he took estimates to repair damaged fenders and bumpers.
The call was from legendary NASCAR team owner Richard Childress.
"I 'bout hung up on him. I just thought it was somebody messing with me," Bowyer said. "It's a dream come true. Something I'll never forget."
Childress told him not to worry about the F-150 pickup he was fixing, just get to North Carolina to test his abilities behind the wheel.
Now, two years later, he's trying to avoid denting the fenders of his AC Delco Monte Carlo as he chases the NASCAR Busch title. After Saturday's race at Dover, Del., Bowyer had closed within 26 points of defending series champion and points leader Martin Truex Jr.
Bower finished second to Ryan Newman on Saturday. Truex, the winner of the last two Dover races, was 12th after cutting a tire.
"I hate to gain points like that, but that's plain racing luck," Bowyer said. "We have had bad luck this year, also. He will be able to bounce back, and that just makes for an even closer points race."
The next round in the battle will be Oct. 7 at Kansas Speedway, about 85 miles northeast of Emporia.
Body shop manager Larry Wilburn said he suspected Bowyer eventually would land a NASCAR ride, but he hoped he would have waited a bit longer. Bowyer did estimates and minor dent repair at the shop.
"I told him he should have waited for an opportunity to drive Ford," Wilburn said. "We're all pretty excited for him. A lot of computers have Clint Bowyer screen savers and we're collecting the die-cast cars."
After a successful audition in late 2003, Bowyer drove part-time for Childress in the No. 21 car, sharing duties with Kevin Harvick. He finished the 2004 season with four top-five finishes, seven top 10s and nearly $400,000 in earnings.
Bowyer has been in the hunt for the Busch title all this season, thanks to 10 top fives and 18 top 10s, including his first career victory in June at Nashville. There now are six races left as he tries to catch Truex.
"I think we've caught a lot of people off guard. There's been a lot of guys who said, 'Where the hell did this guy come from?"' Bowyer said.
Bowyer came from a background in racing that began when he was a child, racing motorcycles, then stock cars at regional dirt tracks.
He won the 2002 NASCAR Weekly Racing Series Midwest Region title with 10 wins and 18 top-five finishes in 19 starts at Lakeside Speedway, a few miles north of Kansas Speedway.
"Who would ever thought dragging a '78 Camaro out of the weeds would lead to this?" Bowyer said.
Childress said a friend told him about Bowyer as a driver that he should watch.
"I like drivers that have dirt experience," Childress said. "That really helps their car control."