Bowyer's first win has Emporia -- and most of Kansas -- buzzing

The voice on Jana Bowyer's voice mail three weeks ago was choked with emotion.

It was Jackie Gay, a friend from her bowling league who 16 years ago taught her son, Clint, seventh-grade math in a satellite classroom in Emporia, Kan.

Jana recalled that Gay and her son didn't get along very well. She remembered that Gay didn't feel Clint gave her or the class the kind of attention it deserved, spending more time looking out the window at race cars parked across the street at a gas station than his books.

Some jokingly say he single-handedly forced her to retire early.

But there was Gay's voice, cracking as she spoke with great pride about her former student.

"The whole town is pretty proud of him," Gay said.

They are proud because their now-favorite son won his first Nextel Cup race at New Hampshire International Speedway.

They are proud because in only his second full season in NASCAR's premier series Bowyer is in the thick of the Chase for the Nextel Cup, only 18 points behind leader Jeff Gordon after last week's 12th-place finish at Dover.

"If he's not the most famous person from Emporia he's pretty close to the top," Gay said. "He's the one in the spotlight right now, at least."

The spotlight is shining brightly on Bowyer this weekend at Kansas Speedway, an hour and a half from the sleepy college town of Emporia that produced legendary basketball coach Dean Smith and former NFL quarterback Jim Everett.

People who barely heard of the 28-year-old before his win at New Hampshire will crowd the fences at Lakeside Speedway for Friday night's late-model event at the track where Bowyer once made a name for himself.

They will clamor for his autograph and picture at Kansas Speedway, which was a housing development while Bowyer grew up working at the Goodyear store and local car dealership in Emporia.

"Those people seem to come out of the woodwork," said John O'Neal, who was a local legend before Bowyer stole his thunder.

O'Neal knew Bowyer had the talent and good looks to become a star at this level the first time they raced. Although humbled by being replaced as the track headliner, he knew it was only temporary.

"I knew Clint's ability was going to take him far beyond our local racing," he said. "I knew Clint was destined for bigger and better things."

Success didn't come easy. Bowyer is the first to say he was lucky, being at the right place at the right time when team owner Richard Childress noticed him from afar in an ARCA race in Nashville, Tenn.

He will tell you he just as easily could be back in Emporia racing on dirt against hundreds of other drivers who never got a break and fiddling with rebuilding hot rods such as his pride and joy, a 1949 Mercury.

His dad, Chris, still has trouble believing this is all real.

"I'm still in awe that we are able and lucky enough to be doing what we're doing with the people we are doing it with," he said. "It's one of those things you think you're going to wake up and be back home scrambling with dirt cars again.

"It's one of those stories that people write fiction about."

It's definitely not a story Gay saw coming.

"I don't think she saw a very bright future for him … in math, anyway," Jana said. "She told him when he started driving that it probably was good he found another vocation."

Right place, right time

Bowyer leaned against a counter in the back of his No. 07 RCR hauler, autographing a collection of items laid out by his public relations department.

"It wasn't that long ago that I was working at a local dealership, washing and detailing cars," he recalled. "My motor home driver now, he was a salesman at the dealership.

"One day he brought a car back at closing time to be detailed. It was a deal that would take 30 minutes to an hour, and my buddies were waiting to go to a party. I told him, 'Boy, one of these days you're going to be cleaning my cars.'"

Bowyer never has lacked for confidence. He was so confident he could make it at this level that in 2003 he convinced his father to enter him in an ARCA race in Nashville knowing it could be a financial disaster.

"I knew it was a gamble, that we didn't have the resources to do it," Chris said. "I told him we couldn't pay the tire bill for the test, let alone the race. It was a stretch, but he insisted on it."

Bowyer took money left over from winning the regional championship in Kansas and whatever else he could scrounge up to put a makeshift team together with local team owner Scott Traylor. He drove a castoff Pontiac that Ken Schrader once drove for MB2 Motorsports.

"Hell, I was the gas guy," his father said. "What does that tell you?"

The crew indeed struggled. Bowyer went from a top-five spot to the back of the pack on his first pit stop. Later, he stayed out while everybody else pitted for fresh tires so he wouldn't give up track position again.

He finished second.

"That was the turning point," Chris said.

Again, there was luck involved.

Childress happened to be watching from his motor home in Watkins, Glen, N.Y., because Cup practice had been delayed by rain. Bowyer caught his attention not only with his driving, but with a Sonic Drive-In sponsored car that looked almost identical to the one Childress fielded in the Busch Series.

The following Monday, Bowyer got a call from Childress at the body shop where he worked. Once he realized it wasn't a friend playing a practical joke, he was on an early-morning plane for a tryout in North Carolina.

Childress, who won six Cup titles with the legendary Dale Earnhardt, put Bowyer in a Busch car in 2004 and 2005, then moved him to Cup a year ago.

"None of us had a clue going into that thing that we were going to be even remotely close to having a shot at winning," Bowyer said of the ARCA race. "To be able to think back to what we were able to accomplish that day was a miracle, and certainly I am thankful the right person was watching at the right time."

Mike Dillon, Bowyer's spotter, said Childress doesn't make many spur-of-the-moment decisions like that.

"He saw something there he liked," he said. "Richard gets all the credit for signing him. He saw him and stuck with him."

Bad loser

Steam rose from the track at Dover International as the elder Bowyer watched a sudden thunderstorm postpone practice at the 1-mile track last week.

A few hours earlier, the steam was coming from his son after qualifying next to last.

"He doesn't like to be embarrassed," Chris said. "Whenever he has a bad day it embarrasses him and he has trouble getting over it."

Asked how Bowyer shows his disappointment, Chris paused and said, "He's an ass. Just an ass."

This is where it all began for me. We'd run on dirt on Friday nights and asphalt on Saturday nights and stay the night in Kansas City in a motor home. It's a lot of fun going back there with a win. It'll be more fun to leave there with a win.

Clint Bowyer

Chris and his wife knew their son had a strong competitive nature at an early age, from the time he gave up baseball after becoming frustrated with fly balls to the time he was pinned by a girl in wrestling.

Yes, by a girl.

"She pinned him and his best friend that day," Bowyer's father recalled. "Clint said, 'I ain't never doing that again. Never!'"

Bowyer gave up traditional sports at an early age to focus on motorsports. He began racing dirt bikes at the age of 5, but turned to cars when his grandfather took him to a dirt track in Humboldt, Kan.

In fact, his whole family turned to cars. Chris, who runs a towing company in Emporia, set up a shop in his storage lot.

"A lot of parents out there start their kid out in go-karts and work their way up thinking they're going to make a NASCAR star out of him," Bowyer's mother said. "We just did it because we all enjoyed doing it."

Bowyer did it because he liked to win -- and he won a lot. He captured track and regional championships at every level he entered. He transitioned from dirt to pavement like Tiger Woods going from slow to fast greens.

"We didn't have the best stuff and knew damn little about what we were doing, but he's always been able to run up front," Chris said.

And when Bowyer doesn't win, stay clear.

Such was the case last year at Kansas Speedway when Bowyer and his team blew a legitimate chance to win their first Cup race.

"He was sick," Chris said. "We all met out in the grass behind the track after the race. All the family and friends that couldn't get pit passes were there. He was in a foul mood."

Dirt to pavement

Jeff Cassoday had spent the previous year working with O'Neal when he heard Bowyer wanted to make the transition from dirt to pavement at I-70 Speedway about 30 miles northeast of Kansas City.

"We ended up winning the first race we ran and the track championship," Cassoday recalled. "You could tell right away he was a great talent, a natural racer."

Bowyer and O'Neal developed a rivalry that became quite heated after a 100-lap Late Model race at I-70.

O'Neal had led 97 laps when Bowyer, who had been beating and banging on him all night, spun him out coming off Turn 2.

"O'Neal was pissed off afterward," Cassoday said. "We all thought we were going to have to fight that night. At the same time, the gal Clint's dating now thought it was pretty cool. I guess that kind of sealed the deal for her as far as Clint was concerned."

O'Neal felt resentment not only over that incident, but because he knew Bowyer would get the opportunity to advance that he wouldn't.

He's since become a big fan, and welcomed the opportunity to race against him on Friday night.

"Watching him on Sundays, I can at least relish the fact that I got to race with him and see he's truly representative of guys like myself that were able to compete with him and beat him," O'Neal said.

"I take solace in that if I was a little younger and the opportunity presented itself back then, maybe I could have taken the same path he did."

First win

Bowyer's mother was in the stands at New Hampshire, sitting with the fans as she normally does instead of in the pit box as many Cup parents do.

"I was by this one guy that knew who I was," she said. "He didn't say anything pretty much the whole race. When it got to about 50 to go he handed me a bottle of water and said, 'Mom, I think he's going to do it. You better go meet him in Victory Circle.'"

Jana didn't budge, not wanting to jinx the win the entire family longed for.

"But with 10 laps to go I took off," she said. "I wasn't going to miss that. It was a great accomplishment."

Until New Hampshire, Bowyer was the driver most likely to get his first win. Now he's a candidate for the championship.

"We never even thought he'd be in Nextel Cup," Jana said.

Just how big the win was didn't sink in until last weekend when she and her husband pulled their motor coach into Dover with fans literally lining their path to say congratulations.

"I was, 'Oh, my gosh! That was me five years ago,'" Jana said.

Chris and Jana drive their motor coach to practically every race. They like the lifestyle so much that their new home being constructed outside of Emporia is basically a big warehouse with a loft apartment on one end and enough room to park two motor coaches inside.

"My parents are kind of like me, always on the go their whole life," said Bowyer, who has dibs on the second parking spot. "A house is not that important."

But winning is, although Bowyer attempted to treat his 62-race winless streak to start Cup as if it were no big deal.

"Yeah, it was eating him up," his father said. "Especially because he had opportunities to win races. They had given him cars in the last year that were good enough to win, Kansas being one of them last year.

"If he'd have been smarter, if the whole team had been ready to win a race. … He was dominant that day. We all got excited. We won the middle of the race, and then lost on mistakes. It ate him up."

No lottery winner

Gay hoped one of the lottery tickets she bought from a local group in Emporia would be drawn for tickets to Sunday's race.

"Didn't win," she said with a tinge of disappointment. "But I'll be there in spirit."

Bowyer likes going home. He likes walking down the street where people know him simply as Clint and not the future of NASCAR, as teammate Jeff Burton likes to say.

He likes going to Bruffs Bar and Grill with his friends for a big steak, or to Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q in Kansas City for a slab of their famous ribs.

"These people in the South, they just don't quite get it as far as barbecue," Bowyer said. "They think theirs is the best in the country. Let me tell you something, Kansas City barbecue can't be beat."

Bowyer spends most of his time in North Carolina now. He purchased 40 acres adjacent to where Childress' mansion sits in Clemmons. He restored an old home and built a high-banked go-kart track with lights, grandstands and Jack Daniel's logos provided by his primary sponsor.

He'll host weekly events in which fellow drivers, crew members and often their kids compete. He gets as upset losing there as he does on Sundays on the big oval.

"Ask him to tell you how bad he gets when he loses to kids," Dillon said with a laugh.

Said Bowyer, "Cause they were cheating. If I lose, it's because they were cheating."

As much as Bowyer loves his new surroundings, Kansas remains home. He wants to win at Kansas Speedway as badly as Tony Stewart wanted to win at Indianapolis.

"This is where it all began for me," Bowyer said. "We'd run on dirt on Friday nights and asphalt on Saturday nights and stay the night in Kansas City in a motor home.

"It's a lot of fun going back there with a win. It'll be more fun to leave there with a win."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.