This wasn't the plan.
Clint Bowyer was never supposed to leave Richard Childress Racing, his home ever since he came into NASCAR. Childress was the owner who had plucked Bowyer from obscurity and given him a shot in stock car racing's major leagues.
Nor was Bowyer ever supposed to leave Chevrolet, whose vehicles he had driven ever since building an '81 Chevy pickup truck with his father – his first car.
But on Friday, it was made official: Bowyer is leaving RCR at the end of the year to drive a Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota for at least the next three seasons.
And while Bowyer is happy to be joining MWR ("I truly feel this is where I'm supposed to be," he said), he's also saddened his tenure at RCR could not continue.
"I was extremely surprised – and disappointed," Bowyer of learning RCR wouldn't be welcoming him back next season. "I thought it was a sure lock."
So what happened?
Let's recap some of what we know:
• Bowyer starts the season by telling reporters he has no plans to leave Richard Childress despite an expiring contract at the end of 2011.
• In the spring, current Rusty Wallace Racing sponsor 5-Hour Energy decides to increase its commitment to NASCAR and targets a Sprint Cup Series driver. The company and Bowyer begin talks in the early summer.
• With a commitment from 5-Hour Energy, Bowyer begins shopping himself as a package deal to potential teams. But with 5-Hour Energy only funding a partial season, any team bringing on Bowyer would have to come up with a sponsor for the remainder of the season.
• Multiple teams tell Bowyer they're interested, but can't sign the driver unless he finds full-season sponsorship.
"That's what you fought a lot," Bowyer said. "Once you see the risks they're taking, it's like, 'Man...I don't know that I blame you!' It's tough for everyone in this sport right now, and it's opened my eyes up a bunch to the importance of funding, of sponsorships, those relationships."
• Childress, who has had a close relationship with Bowyer over the years, shows the team's finances to the driver and explains exactly why he can't sign him under the current circumstances.
"I realized the toughness of the situation," Bowyer said. "Richard and I are close enough, he's going to open the books up and show you what he's up against. I was like, 'Oh, man. I'm in trouble. I don't have a home here unless I go out and find the rest of the funding.'"
• MWR agrees to take a chance on Bowyer and sign the driver to a long-term deal without full-season sponsorship – a rarity in the current economic environment. The deal is for 24 races, which means 12 races are currently unsponsored.
A fresh start
Bowyer has embraced the opportunity for a fresh start, particularly since mass layoffs are expected at the end of the season. That means his No. 15 team, which is starting from scratch, will have the chance to get some top personnel.
"We have an opportunity to build a dream team," Bowyer said. "There's going to be a lot of good people out there without jobs at the end of the year, and I think we can find them."
The driver also refuted reports he had been chasing an excessive salary and seemed to acknowledge taking a paycut, as drivers like Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton also said they did earlier this year.
"If you're taking away from the performance, it does you no good to hound after a salary," Bowyer said. "You can't go broke doing this, but you've got to be able to allow these owners to have the funding to put you on top of the board. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about."
As for Childress, it seems likely the team will cut back to three cars until Austin Dillon is ready for the Sprint Cup Series in 2013.
"There's gonna be an odd man out (at RCR) one of these days," Bowyer said. "Everybody knows what's coming. It was unfortunate it was me."