WELCOME, N.C. -- A breakthrough season behind him, Clint Bowyer should be riding high heading to Daytona International Speedway to start the 2008 campaign. But that doesn't mean a few lingering doubts aren't coming along for the trip.
Sure, the 28-year-old from Emporia, Kan., qualified for the Chase and won his first Cup race last season, but in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of NASCAR, Bowyer knows that isn't enough.
"I called [teammate Jeff] Burton and I was freaking out before we went down to Daytona to test. I [was] like, 'I'm nervous about this season. I'm nervous I forgot how to drive and we're going to be no good,'" Bowyer said. "His answer was you wouldn't be a good race car driver if you weren't [nervous], and I believe that.
"Richard [Childress] used to tell me that Dale [Earnhardt] would come up to him and say, 'Man, I don't know if I can get it done for you this year. I don't know if I can do it,' and I really believe that he probably was nervous about it. That's never went away from me in all the years I've raced. If I won 30 races the year before, I still went back to Lakeside Speedway that opening night and was worried about beating them."
Crew chief Gil Martin, who led Bowyer to that breakthrough win last September at New Hampshire, understands his driver's concerns, though he truly doesn't think there's anything to worry about. But on some level, he shares some of Bowyer's anxiety.
The two went for a drive during the offseason to take a look at a 1949 Mercury that Bowyer had restored. The conversation turned toward what was accomplished in '07 and what they can achieve this season.
"We all are [nervous]. If you're not nervous about it, you don't care about the results," Martin said. "I think we're more anxious than nervous because of the fact that we've been there and we know what it's going to take to run up front and to beat the guys that we've got to beat.
"By knowing that and having experienced it once, I think that's going to help us a little bit going into the season."
Truth be told, if anyone needs to worry, Martin likely would point to the competition that will be trying to keep Bowyer out of Victory Lane this season. As far as Martin and Team Childress are concerned, NASCAR hasn't seen anything yet where Bowyer's concerned.
"Last year was a good momentum boost for our team. I think Clint learned a lot last year and we learned a lot as a team," Martin said. "I think we're a little better prepared than we were last year and we know what we've got up against us. We've had a taste of running in the front and being in the Chase and, quite frankly, we don't want to be out of it."
And to hear Martin tell it, last year was just a hint of what's to come.
"I think he's gonna be one of the best the sport's ever seen," Martin said. "To be as good as he is right now at the experience level where he is right now, I think we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of where he's going to be. I really feel that highly about him."
Childress isn't afraid to take things a step further, but this isn't anything new. The owner has been a fan since he first saw Bowyer in an ARCA race, and nothing has changed that perspective.
And considering he's willing to compare Bowyer to a driver with whom he won six championships, that's saying a lot.
"I don't think Clint's even reached his stride. I think you're going to see even more out of Clint this year, and Gil Martin, by them working together," Childress said. "[In Clint], I saw a young man that had a desire to win that reminded me of another driver that I had for quite a few years that started out with nothing and became one of the greatest race drivers, and that was Dale Earnhardt. He probably reminds me of his style as much as anybody I've ever seen come along."
Considering Earnhardt won 76 races to go with his seven championships (the first coming when he drove for owner Rod Osterlund), Bowyer still has a long way to go to remind most fans of The Intimidator.
I think he's gonna be one of the best the sport's ever seen. To be as good as he is right now at the experience level where he is right now, I think we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of where he's going to be. I really feel that highly about him.
-- Gil Martin
But, at 28, he's got plenty of time to get there if he so chooses. Bowyer knows there's room for improvement coming off a year in which he finished third behind Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in the Chase.
Those two drivers combined for 16 wins last year, with Bowyer taking just one. So he's ready to take the next step.
"I need to get better in a lot of areas; I still need to improve on road [courses], communication to Gil and confidence. That's the biggest part of it," Bowyer said. "There's definitely all areas to improve on -- and when that stops, you're in trouble."
Bowyer laughs when saying that and knows confidence is a major part of being successful. He thinks numerous drivers have the talent to get it done, with confidence being one of the things that sets them apart.
"This is probably a young kid speaking out of turn, but I think if Mark Martin had the confidence that Dale Earnhardt had, he'd have probably won just as many championships as Earnhardt," Bowyer said.
Bowyer's confidence is already ahead of where it was entering last season, especially once he won at New Hampshire. Having qualified for the Chase without a win, Bowyer knew some questioned whether he belonged.
Putting those questions to rest went a long way.
"For me, that was the momentum, the confidence-booster that I needed," he said. "I got close and you have people say, 'You're the next one [to win]. You're the next one,' and it never happened. I was like, 'Man, am I going to be able to get this done?'
"When we finally did and won the first race of the Chase, it just catapulted us into where we needed to be. It's a pretty elite group of drivers, and I was proud of that."
The goal now is to become the best, and that means what was good enough last year won't cut it any longer. So while driving with Gil Martin, Bowyer's focus was on 2008 and not the vintage car they were going to see.
"Our goal [last year] was to be a top-10 team week in and week out," Bowyer said. "...I told Gil, 'We have to pick it up. Our goal's not to be a top-10 car anymore. Our goal is to be a top-5 car every week, and I believe we can do that.
"I think we've proven it to ourselves that we can do that in the Chase. We've just got to keep that attitude and mental outlook alive and make it happen."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.