Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – Alex Bowman is already anticipating the “party” his grandmother will likely throw in advance of his arrival at Arizona’s ISM Raceway for Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 (at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The Tucson native acknowledges with a smile that his first hometown Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season is a big deal for his family and friends, who still live in the region. It’s been a good venue for him since joining the championship Hendrick Motorsports organization and there’s nowhere he’d rather score his first Cup victory.
“Typically I go to dinner with them one night if I can and everybody will come on Sunday,” Bowman said. “It will be my two brothers, their two wives, my mom, my step-mom, my dad and my grandma. And then my grandma kind of invites everybody she knows and turns it into a party.
“I think her hairdresser goes with her even. You could honestly sell that place out on my grandma’s friends.”
It’s easy to understand the pride. Bowman, got a career resurrection of a lifetime when Hendrick Motorsports tabbed him to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet fulltime replacing the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., when he retired from fulltime competition in 2017.
In his first Phoenix green flag driving the No. 88 while filling in for then-injured Earnhardt in 2016, Bowman earned his first ever Monster Energy Series pole position. Then he led a dominant 194 of the race’s 324 laps to finish sixth – a career best mark for him up to that point and the most laps he’d led in a single race still to this day.
Each return to ISM Raceway’s one-miler is something Bowman gladly anticipates.
It was essentially the real launching point for his career in more ways than one. After that 10-race stint filling in for Earnhardt in 2016, NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner Rick Hendrick gave Bowman the job in the No. 88 fulltime. He answered with a career year in 2018 – scoring his first three top-five finishes and finishing with a career best 11 top-10s.
He’s qualified fifth or better at Phoenix in each of his three starts for Hendrick – adding a finish of 13th in this race last year. He crashed out last November at the newly-remodeled version of ISM Raceway.
“I would say there (ISM Raceway) and Charlotte are probably my two most confident places that I go as far as just feeling like I know what I need and can approach the race track and maybe have a little advantage on some guys,” Bowman said.
Fellow Arizona native Michael McDowell, of Phoenix, is enjoying one of the best season starts in his previous 12 years of Cup competition. A fifth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 launched the season well. He’s qualified well at both Atlanta (12th) and Las Vegas (16th) just not had the results to show with finishes of 37th and 30th, respectively. He is eager to right the ship in front of the hometown crowd.
“We’ve had great speed, qualified well at Atlanta and qualified well at Vegas and got a car in third round at both mile-and-a-halves which is really impressive for our organization,” said McDowell, who drives the No. 34 Ford Mustang for Front Row Motorsports. “I think it’s a combination of a really good offseason, expanding to three cars which allowed us to hire some great personnel and also just building momentum from last year.”
He added, “Obviously this rule package has worked to our favor for now. The hardest part is the best teams are going to develop the fastest so we’ve just got to be able to keep up over this next stretch of 10 weeks as those guys are figuring things out, we’ve got to stay right on them.”
As far as the new track layout last Fall – the start-finish line was moved to the former Turn 2 area as part of a massive upgrade to the facility on-track and off-track – Bowman, at least, doesn’t find it a particular game-changer.
“I think it really just changed restarts,” Bowman said. “It changed pit road as well, but it changed restarts quite a bit. So you have to approach that a little differently. Driving the race track is still the same obviously, but just how you approach your restarts has definitely changed up quite a bit.”
There’s no question Bowman would love to earn his first career Cup victory in front of his hometown fans and family – especially his grandma. But beyond that, Bowman is eager to right the season’s ship, so to speak. He has two 11th-place finishes (at Daytona and last week at Las Vegas) and a 15th-place effort at Atlanta is ranked 12th in the championship standings.
And this will be the first time the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has used a new technical package on a track 1-mile or shorter.
“I don’t think it’s going to change short track racing nearly as much as it is going to change everywhere else we go,” Bowman said. “I think it will look more like what you saw in 2014-2015 when we had a lot of downforce at the short tracks.
“I’m looking forward to it. Obviously, the reconfiguration made restarts pretty crazy and I love that race track. It will be fun. It’s going to be a little faster than it was last year just with more downforce, but that is really all I feel like is going to change.”
He’s hopeful the hometown venue will present the season’s first top-10 opportunity if not a chance to celebrate in Victory Lane with his family. But Bowman insists that urge to win is present every place he goes.
“I go every week to win,” Bowman said. “I mean every single week I go to the race track, I go to win. I don’t go to try and run top-10 or try to run top-five or try to have a good points day or whatever. I just want to win.”