Clint Bowyer, like most drivers, gets tired of answering the same questions.

The two probes he has faced the most since the end of last season have been about his feud with Jeff Gordon and about his chances of having a down year after finishing runner-up in the points to champion Brad Keselowski. Bowyer chuckled at the idea of answering them again when he and I spoke Monday at the CNN Center in Downtown Atlanta. Both he and NASCAR president Mike Helton came to Atlanta to promote the new racing season and NASCAR’s new Gen-6 racecar. Bowyer’s No. 15 Five-Hour Energy Toyota, along with Keselowski’s No. 2 Miller Lite Ford and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 National Guard Chevy were all on display for both fans and the media alike to see the radically different-looking new Sprint Cup Series cars in person. Bowyer did an interview with HLN’s Robin Meade, while sitting on his driver’s door. Beforehand, we spent 12 minutes discussing, among other things, “the runner-up slump.” 

After giving up the championship lead in 2010 and finishing 2nd in points, Denny Hamlin suffered poor performance and horrible luck in 2011 and was a non-factor in the points championship. Carl Edwards tied Tony Stewart for the championship win in 2011, but lost the crown because Stewart had five wins to Edwards’ one. In 2012, Edwards went from being a top-5 machine and plummeted to 15th in points with an average finish worse than 15th. Instead of asking Bowyer if he thought that would be his fate (because what driver would predict his own team’s demise?), I asked Bowyer what he thought causes such downturns in performance. 

“If an Olympic athlete finishes with a silver metal, it’s a huge letdown. [Finishing 2nd in points] wasn’t for us,” Bowyer said, twice-interrupted by passing fans asking if he would retaliate against Gordon. “A lot of people didn’t have us chalked up to make the Chase – much less, win the championship. So to be able to win three races together our first time out and make the Chase – we proved that wrong – and go down to the wire in the championship in our first year together – we were ecstatic! We were happy with that. So I don’t see that side of a huge letdown. We were pumped up about it and don’t see that 2nd place hangover.”

Without mentioning their names, Bowyer essentially is stating that Edwards and Hamlin, who each have been with their same teams their entire careers, had been building up to those near championship wins and the close losses crushed their teams and eventually led to their departing with their crew chief. Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie, meanwhile, exceeded expectations and believe they can build off of that momentum. Bowyer offered more insight to just how much of an undertaking his 2012 season was. 

“It was a complete start over from scratch…with a new manufacturer in Toyota, a new organization in MWR, a new sponsor. To be able to share the success we had right off the bat was certainly special. It meant a lot to me. It was a an eye-opener – I think it opened my eyes and a lot of people’s eyes to the potential of this race team. If we could come out of the box and have the success we had in the first year together, I really think the sky is the limit.” 

Among other topics Bowyer and I discussed was his relationship with team owner Michael Waltrip. The two famously tangled on the track a few times in 2008, prompting an emotional Bowyer to call his former foe “the worst driver in NASCAR. Period.” So I asked Bowyer how the two made amends, especially when they approached each other about Bowyer driving for Michael Waltrip Racing. 

“It was funny. When I came in to talk to him, the first thing Michael said was, ‘Do you still think I am the worst driver in NASCAR?’ I was like, ‘Well, yeah, but I think you could be a really good owner.’ That was our kind of laugh right off the bat with one another. That was our way of putting it behind us.”  

Bowyer raced full-time in the Sprint Cup Series from 2006 to 2011 with Richard Childress Racing and won a Nationwide Series championship with the team in 2008. He announced his departure from RCR late in the 2011 season, meaning he spent the last quarter or so of the season with a foot out of the team’s door. With his former teammate Kevin Harvick already saying that he is leaving the team after this season, he talked of what being a lame-duck driver is like. 

“It pretty much sucks.”

He did say that he believes that Harvick will still perform well and is a near-lock to make the 2013 Chase. 

Bowyer may not be in the popularity echelon of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and most people do not place him in their elite list of talented drivers. But his fire and rivalry with Gordon, along with his breakout 2012 performance with his new team certainly have notched him up the chart in both respects.  

Bowyer, who raced extensively on dirt in his pre-NASCAR career, also discusses the unknowns of the inaugural Eldora Truck race this year, some of the drivers he idolized growing up, how his team is dealing with the parts shortage on the Gen-6 cars, and why NASCAR’s new racecar will be even faster. Listen here: