KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Clint Bowyer slid out of his No. 15 car in the parking lot of BB's Lawnside BBQ, just south of downtown Kansas City, and greeted good buddy Guy Fieri with a hearty handshake.
The Sprint Cup star and Food Network icon were filming an episode of Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," but they kept running into a problem: The guys working at the auto repair shop next door wanted to meet Bowyer and kept wandering into the shots.
"They had to ask all the guys next door to go back inside," BB's owner Lindsay Shannon said, "but what they did was they took the car over there and parked it in the garage, and when they were done, they got all the guys who worked for the garage and had their pictures taken with Clint."
To some, Bowyer has become a pariah, the guy who threw NASCAR into chaos with a controversial spin at Richmond last month. To those in Kansas — and those at that auto repair shop — he's still one of their own, the hometown boy who made good.
"Obviously, with what's been going on lately, it's nice to come home," Bowyer told The Associated Press on Friday. "I always love coming back here, obviously a lot of great memories, lots of friends, people who have been supporting me since my early days."
People willing to stand by him after anything. The native of Emporia, Kan., still insists his spin at Richmond was unintentional, and NASCAR was unable to prove Bowyer was attempting to manipulate the finish. But in the court of public opinion, Bowyer was quickly found guilty of trying to get teammate Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and he felt the repercussions everywhere he went.
One of the most popular drivers on the series, Bowyer suddenly felt strident fan animosity for the first time. Their chief complaint is that they believe Bowyer has been lying about not spinning on purpose, but if he were to admit guilt, Bowyer would be subject to NASCAR sanctions.
"It's just a ton of distraction," he said. "Ton of disappointment." NASCAR did uncover evidence that others in Bowyer's Michael Waltrip Racing team tried to alter the outcome at Richmond to get Truex into its version of the playoffs. The result was harsh sanctions against the organization that included knocking Truex out of the Chase — in response, Truex sponsor NAPA Auto Parts said it would pull out at the end of the year.
Bowyer was left wondering whether his own sponsor, 5-Hour Energy, would bail on him at the end of the season. The company has since said it will be back next year. "He did some things that were out of character and regrettable and he feels terrible to have any involvement in it," said Bowyer's friend, Dale Earnhardt Jr. "I know that for a fact."
Still, the distractions couldn't have come at a worse time. After spending most of the year near the top of the standings, Bowyer went into the Chase dealing with the fallout from an incident that shook his sport to the very core. He was forced to juggle not only repairs to his reputation but also coaxing speed out of his car.
Bowyer finished a respectable ninth at Chicago to open the Chase, but wound up 17th after struggling at New Hampshire. So despite another top-10 run last week at Dover, Bowyer has fallen to eighth in the standings — 51 points adrift of leader Matt Kenseth.
"Any time you have that going in, I mean, this is big-time auto racing, this is professional," Bowyer said. "You have to be 100 percent to be a factor, to be a top-10 team, and if you have any weak link whatsoever, whether its attitudes or just head not in the game, it shows up in a big way, and I think it did those first two weekends."
Things were marginally better last weekend, where Bowyer led a lap and was in contention until the end. He finished 10th in the race, but gained a whole bunch of confidence. "I was happy to have Dover last week," he admitted. "I saw business as usual in my race team, and I think we've shaken all of that other stuff off."
Then again, maybe not quite yet. Bowyer struggled again during a tire test for Goodyear on Thursday, didn't improve a whole lot in practice Friday, and qualified 22nd for Sunday's race. "Obviously, we're out of mulligans," Bowyer said. "It's been a good weekend so far, but the car is terrible. It's been good, everything except the car."