Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – SPEEDWAY, IN – Alex Bowman isn’t quite ready to assume his place in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is secure. Yet. But he has good vibes and a positive outlook heading into the final regular season race, Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.
Bowman has met or exceeded most expectations in his first full Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season driving the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. He is ranked 16th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings heading into Sunday’s race (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – with 16 drivers advancing to the 10-race Playoff.
And although Bowman hasn’t competed at the notoriously tough 2.5-mile Indy track in three years, he is guardedly optimistic about the right scenario – a solid finish for himself and no first-time season winner coming from below him in the standings.
“It’s a pretty vulnerable spot coming to Indy with three guys who have won here behind you in points that haven’t won yet, but you know, I think we can get the job done just as good as they can,’’ Bowman said, allowing a smile.
“I’m excited. I think it would be a great thing to be a part of the Playoffs and hopefully we are in it and we can do it from there.”
It’s been a high-achieving season for the championship organization’s new hire. Taking over the ride of the sport’s perennial favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would seem innately intimidating, but the 25-year-old Bowman has handled it with grace and put the car right back in the championship spotlight – a place it hasn’t been since 2015.
Expectations are high at Hendrick, but no higher than Bowman’s own. This is a career opportunity he is intent to seize. And earning a playoff position in his first full season with the team is exactly the way to do it.
“It would mean a lot to me to be in the Playoffs right off the bat,’’ Bowman said. “Coming from what I came from and kind of going through everything I went through to make the Playoffs in my first year with Hendrick Motorsports would be really special.
“I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch because I will jinx myself and ‘bad luck Bowman’ will come out and somebody will win on fuel mileage or something I will be out, but it’s cool to be in this position, hopefully we can pull it off.”
Although he is still looking for his first career victory, Bowman’s playoff push has been a redemptory boost to his career and a huge thumbs up to getting the high-profile Hendrick ride. He won the pole position for the season-opening Daytona 500, scored a career-best third-place finish at Pocono last month, has led laps in five different races and earned nine top-10 finishes highlighted by a pair of top fives (fifth at Bristol and third at Pocono).
It’s been strong enough to put Bowman immediately into the playoff picture along with Hendrick teammates Chase Elliott, who scored his first career win at Watkins Glen, and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is winless on the season but ranked one position (15th) higher than Bowman.
“Yeah, I think it’s no secret it’s been a rough year for us and for all of Hendrick Motorsports, but we are still in contention for the Playoffs, so that is cool to be a part of,’’ Bowman said. “Vastly different than anything else I’ve done in my career or any other position I’ve been in in the Cup Series.”
It’s the lifelong opportunity he has sought and now hopes to seize.
“I think honestly, the first round as far as tracks is going to be the hardest for us, but I think our speed has definitely been improving,’’ Bowman said.
“Our execution has been improving, [although] we had a rough last week. But I have one of the best teams in the business and we are always getting better and I’m excited to see what we have brought to the race track this week and every week going forward.”